The Foreign Service Journal, December 2023

60 DECEMBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL threatened to take him back. LaChance, Youth, and Hegerle stepped between him and the police, convinced him to board and hustled him into the cabin. Youth worried that if problems grew, the police might halt the entire operation, stranding the prisoners on the final buses. After about two and a half hours, the buses were empty. As the sun began to rise, the plane’s crew ran through preflight checks and triple-checked the manifest. Finally, the Omni Air 767 taxied down the runway and lifted off. The embassy team watched in silence. Canavati pulled out a cell phone to record the moment. “There it goes,” she said as she filmed the plane climbing into the brightening sky. “God bless America.” b Inside the cabin, the newly liberated Nicaraguans broke out in the national anthem. A chorus of chants rang out, extolling Nicaragua’s cities: “Viva, Nicaragua Libre!” “Viva, Managua!” “Viva, Masaya!” “Viva, Chinandega!” Hegerle took to the plane’s intercom, previewing what would happen after landing. Passengers shared pens and began filling out the first of many forms they would see over the coming days. Hegerle passed Youth the intercom. Reviewing some thoughts she’d scribbled on a piece of paper, Youth told the Nicaraguans that the United States had never forgotten them. It had kept fighting for the jailed dissidents: for better prison conditions, for rights to an attorney, for their freedom. “Finally, that day has come. I know that for you all, our departure from Nicaragua is bittersweet. But what’s important right now is that you are free. You are saved. You are safe. And you are with friends. We have to give thanks, because it’s almost a miracle.” “We are here for you, and it’s an honor to accompany you,” she added. “It isn’t every day you get to travel with more than 200 heroes.” Reunions began. Spouses, parents, and children, imprisoned separately, were suddenly face to face again. Three brothers compared their respective ordeals. Aisles filled with passengers hugging, shouting, making up for lost time. Stewards barely squeezed through with food service. Upon landing at Dulles, the released political prisoners were celebrities. Ambassador Sullivan greeted them on the tarmac. Nicaraguans, freed hours earlier, take off from Managua, en route to the United States. The chartered flight carried 222 political prisoners released by the Ortega-Murillo regime to freedom—and many unknowns. MILEYDI GUILARTE