Nelly Roque, Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s Determined Photographer
During the protests, she always kept her face covered by a bandanna. But everyone recognized her anyway, because she was carrying a camera.
Amid the flying bullets of several police attacks in Matagalpa, the voices of young people calling for Nelly Roque could be heard. They always tried to make sure she was okay, because she was one of the few women at the barricades. Also, she always carried her camera, so that she could document the brutal police and paramilitary repression that they were suffering.
Camera in hand, she would run between the different barricades that had been raised in the city streets to be able to document everything that happened. She carried all her basic supplies in a little red backpack so she could sleep anywhere and not have to return home. However, she did go home daily, if only for an hour, to spend some time with her four-year-old daughter.
“Marita”, as the family called her, since her middle name is Marily, would come and go from her house to let them know that she was alright after the attacks. “She always had her camera – that’s her passion,” recounts Gloria Ordonez, the aunt who raised her.
A difficult childhood
Nelly went to live with her aunt when she was eight, after her mother emigrated to Spain to escape the domestic violence she was suffering from Nelly’s alcoholic and unemployed father.
Her friends characterize her as rebellious and stubborn. Most of the time, she dressed in black, with eyeliner of the same color around her eyes. “She liked rock and heavy metal music a lot. She’d always tell me when she was going to hear the music groups, and I gave her permission because she was very independent and responsible,” affirms her aunt.
Concern for others
From the time she was small, she’s been supportive of others. Every outing with her family meant hearing Nelly say: “I want to sponsor that kid who’s begging in the street.”’
She’s also been involved in projects that rescue stray dogs in Matagalpa. In the afternoons, after finishing her classes at the university, she’d spend time feeding the dogs in the streets.
From the time she was a teenager, she declared herself a feminist, and she liked fighting for the empowerment of women, says Lucia, Nelly’s friend.
At the age of 23, she gave birth to “Amelie”, who’s now four years old. Since Amelie turned one, she’s been Nelly’s sole responsibility, because she separated from the father.
“Nelly is a very dedicated mother: she eats, breathes and lives for Amelie. Amelie is her light and her motor force,” her aunt explains.
At the end of 2016, Nelly decided to go to Spain with her daughter and reunite with her mother. But a year and a half later, she was back, because “she didn’t like” living there. Her aunt recalls that she called her and said: “I can’t live in a country that’s not Nicaragua, and I want to come back to my country. That’s where I’m going to live.”
In February of last year, Nelly returned to Nicaragua. Four months later, she was jailed by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. Her sin: backing the protests.
Capturing the protests in photos
Nelly has always been interested in environmental issues, so much so that she decided to become an agricultural engineer. A month after returning from Spain, she whole-heartedly joined in the protests over the government’s lack of response to the forest fire that was consuming the Indio Maiz biological reserve.
“Since she returned from Spain, she hasn’t stopped fighting for her ideals. She was always at the head of the marches for Indio Maiz, and later in the protests over the proposed Social Security reforms,” noted a friend, who asked to remain anonymous for reasons of personal safety.
Nelly, together with other young people, decided to form the “April 19th Movement of Matagalpa”. Even though she rejected any type of leadership role, she became one of the most outspoken voices of protest during the demonstrations in her city.
“She was a fundamental pillar within the Movement. We’ve always looked to her as a strong and secure young woman, and she always encouraged us and raised our spirits,” recalled a university student.
Before the protests, Nelly was working as a professional photographer, said Gloria, the aunt who raised her. She also went to art classes. “She loved taking photos of children, nature, and later she went on to capture the protests,” her aunt comments.
According to Gloria, the family always supported her, even though she was risking her life. “I told her that we were all in this struggle, and that the only thing different is that we hadn’t had the courage to take part in the action, like these young people,” Ordonez confesses.
The day she was detained
Nelly was captured on June 26, together with other members of the April 19th Movement of Matagalpa, when they were on their way to Managua. They were detained in the morning, and were held captive for hours – forced to remain out under the rain, seated in the scrub-brush by the roadside. “They had them barefoot in the grass, before being transferred to jail,” explains her aunt.
Nelly received blows when she attempted to defend one of her companions, who was being savagely beaten by a group of hooded paramilitary.
On December 10, 2018, Nelly was sentenced to eighteen and a half years in prison for organized crime, illegal arms possession and kidnapping. “The same crimes that they apply to all of them. That’s a lie,” her aunt declares.
Currently, Nelly is in prison, in over-crowded conditions. Some of her cellmates have to sleep on the floor. Her family asserts that she’s not in good health, since she suffers from gastritis and claustrophobia. “A few months ago, she was vomiting for two days, and they didn’t grant her any medical attention. If it hadn’t been for her cellmates Maria Adilia Peralta and Amaya Coppens, who came to her aid, I don’t know what would have happened,” her aunt recalls sadly.
The whole situation has been hard on her family. After Nelly’s detention, they had to transform their house into a “transit center”, due to persecution from the regime’s followers. “She only wants a free country, a country with democracy. She wants to live in a country where people’s lives are respected. She wants a free country for her daughter. That’s been her crime,” concludes her aunt sadly.
Despite the siege and the persecution, Ordonez and Amelie, Nelly’s little girl, visit her every 21 days in the La Esperanza women’s prison. “I bring her daughter to the visits, because I don’t want the Amelie to forget her mom. I want her to see that her mother’s okay,” states Gloria. It hasn’t been easy for Amelie, but her mother’s encouraging words have helped her. “Amelie leaves happy after each visit. When we ask her where her mother is, she says that she’s in the struggle,” recounts her aunt.
Since Nelly’s arrest, Amelie is afraid of the police she sees on the streets. She cries, and says: “They’re the ones who took my mama.” Although she had never separated from her mother, after Nelly was arrested Amalie had to go live with her father. Gloria Ordonez says that when she first got there, Amelie cried for her mother, but she remembers Nelly’s words during the visit: “We’ll soon be together.”