tlf news

Vol. xix #4

December, 1998

The river left a gaping hole in my heart

"I've seen it higher and stronger in other floods. It would have to rise a lot more to cover the 300 metres between there and our house, and as far as I'm concerned it's impossible that it could rise that much", I said to my sister Iris and a group of her friends. We were looking out over the Pelo River on the third day of the rains of Hurricane Mitch. I wasn't the only person expressing that confidence; I heard the same from several of our neighbours of the Barrio San Antonio de Pénjamo. Pénjamo was the barrio of my childhood, and I knew every inch of its streets and every one of the houses, especially those of my friends with whom, even now as adults, we continued to share walks and friendly visits.

Three days later we hadn't seen the sun for a moment; the rain continued and grew into a steady downpour. We couldn't sleep because of the roar of huge boulders dragged along in the currents of what in former times had been little more than a gulley or a creek; but which now carried a volume comparable to the Ulúa River, one of the largest in Central América. I'll never forget those days: the river was swallowing several meters of land per hour, like a famished beast devouring its weak prey -- which in this case were the houses of my friends and neighbours.

The original comment of "It's impossible that it could rise that much" had become transformed into "Hurry, neighbours! Evacuate! The river is going to reach us!" People were frantic, running this way and that. My brothers and sisters and I were continually going to the river's edge to check the distance left to our house. When it touched the edge of our back yard, we sounded the Red Alert in our house and evacuated immediately. That was in the early morning.

The whole family was sure we had lost our house, but some miracle saved it: that very morning the rains began to diminish in intensity. What didn't diminish were the weeping and the pain of more than a hundred and fifty families who had watched their houses and all their worldly goods crashing into the abyss that the raging currents of the Pelo River had created.

Now that the hurricane itself has passed and I walk around my barrio, it seems very small. I feel like something is missing inside me; my mind still can't take in the fact that the street I walked down every day, the route I took by bicycle and the corner where I caught the bus to get to the teatro -- that all of these don't exist any more. The houses I visited all my life aren't there any more, and my childhood friends aren't there either. My barrio exists only as history; it will be erased from the maps completely. It's become a tourist attraction: people visit to prove for themselves that my barrio doesn't exists any more. In its place there is a gaping hole through which the river runs -- and also a gaping hole in my heart.

Once the strongest part of Hurricane Mitch had past, we held an emergency meeting of teatro la fragua to take stock of damages suffered by our families. Chito's family had had to evacuate their house in the barrio Palermo and were staying with Jack -- the River Ulúa was still rising and their house was flooded. But without any doubt the person who lost the most was Don Salvador Velázquez, who is the groundskeeper for the teatro. Don Salva lost his house and the greater part of his belongings. He and his family are still housed in a shelter right across the street from what was once my barrio of Pénjamo.

We got together a plan of mutual help among our families. We formed a food and water brigade to help us confront together the scarcity that was sure to come. With the basic needs of our own families taken care of, we could put our energies at the service of Radio Progreso. During the height of the hurricane they were working and broadcasting day and night -- serving as communication center for the whole area, transmitting messages of people searching for their loved ones, helping directly in the rescue efforts, and by coordinating crews to take food to the thousands of people who had taken refuge in the shelters.

My compañero Yuma and I were assigned to the pick-up to help out at Radio Progreso. The rest set to work in various other tasks. They set about forming quickly groups of young volunteers to mount simple pieces that would help raise the spirits of the homeless refugees in the shelters all over the city. Our intention here wasn't to satisfy the physical hunger of the refugees, but to bring a little joy and laughter to those people most directly hurt and beaten by the hurricane. Joy and laughter that could form the base for smiles of hope as they began the task of rebuilding their lives.

When Yuma and I arrived at Radio Progreso the need was overwhelming. Right away they sent the two of us to beg donations of purified water to take to the other side of the Democracy Bridge. Dozens of persons were arriving there, swimming and straggling along the dikes, from the whole zone of the banana camps. As they completed their exhausting ordeal they were on the point of death, fainting from the exertion: from the titanic effort of swimming or wading many kilometres, and from having lived through several days without food or a drink of water. I was deeply impressed by the strength of those campeños: I couldn t believe that they could emerge victorious from those waters after swimming across the flooded plantations, always in danger of being surprised by the fangs of a frightened snake who just like them was trying to find a safe haven from the furious waters.

Our work continued the next day. Once again we went scraping up a donation of 10,000 bags of purified water, which were to be distributed to the nearby villages where there was no water to drink. They sent us to a village a good way out of town named "Kilometre 27". We took to the road along with some other volunteers. But we ran into a snag. The bridge that we had to cross to get to Kilometre 27 had been swept away by the river. The only solution was to ford the river. I was scared. I was very nervous. But my compañeros put me "between the sword and the wall" as we say, and insisted that the water was an emergency priority. I didn t have any choice. I made the sign of the cross, put the car in first gear and started across. We made it, but it wasn't easy. We felt very relieved -- and happy.

We crossed many acres of African Palm plantations and arrived at the last village on the road. There were numerous families there who had fled from a neighbouring village further on. They didn't have a drop of water to drink or to cook. They were eating plantains cooked directly over a fire. While we were distributing the bags of water, we were continually aware of the rending cries of a child. He was 9 or 10 years old and was very sick. We all tried to play the tough macho when we heard him. We tried not to pay attention to his crying and do our own job, because none of us is a doctor. But the cries of the child pierced our hearts. His mother held him in her lap while she cooled his forhead with a wet rag. I couldn't keep quiet and I asked the mother if she knew what the sickness was that was making her child suffer so much. She answered me, with a lump in her throat, that she didn't know exactly what it was, but that the child complained of pain in his ears and he was running a high fever. I felt completely impotent; the only thing I had to offer her was purified water. We talked about trying to take him to Progreso with us, but decided that the condition of the road made it impossible to transport anyone who was sick. And on top of that it was raining again. We left the village with our hearts broken for that suffering child. And there are thousands of children like him in my country.

--Pedro Javier Cardoza

From all of us at teatro la fragua:

Thank you for your solidarity
in these difficult moments
for our people.

May your Christmas be filled
with peace and joy.

And we count on your continued solidarity
to help us in the task
that lies before us all in the New Year:

the task of assuring
that the reconstruction of our country
is firmly based
on the peace and joy and justice
of the Child
born in a shelter for the homeless.

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