The recent tragic earthquake in Colombia brought back painfully sharp memories for me of a visit to Nicaragua and the devastated village of Posoltega, buried under an avalanche of mud and stones when Hurricane Mitch ripped across Central America last October.
Visiting a refugee encampment as a European is not a comfortable experience. You stand out as someone with possessions, among people who have, literally, lost everything. But people are eager to talk for the very good reason that they are desperate. By Christmas, two months after the hurricane, there were no firm plans for new housing, and only about one week’s food supply remaining.
Inez Vanegas, a refugee with two surviving children, described to me what happened. The extinct Casita volcano has a crater lake which, unsuspected by the authorities, was brimful with water after a month which saw 800 times the normal rainfall. At 11am on October 30, the crater walls burst with the weight of water inside, sending a deluge down the mountainside. By the time it hit the first houses, it was a wall of mud and stones travelling with the speed of a river.
The survivors, like Inez, were those who heard the noise above the sound of rain, and fled their houses – in her case grabbing two children, one of whom suffered deep wounds on her back from being hit by a tree. Twelve other members of her family did not make it. There were 5,000 people like Inez, some of them children who are the only surviving family members. A large number occupy Posoltega’s school; as many again are living under plastic sheeting, sleeping on the ground.
The local mayor, Felicita Zeledon, is a striking figure. She earned international attention with her persistent calls for help for those still clinging to trees in a sea of mud, days after the torrent passed. But now she wants a permanent solution to the refugee crisis. People have lost their homes and, in many cases, their land, as the mud has dried out to form a desert-like plain. Most of the refugees were small farmers. Her timescale is tight yet achievable: if they can be resettled by June, most could plant crops for the next harvest.
But so far, of the 1,500 houses needed, none have been built. Only 300 are even promised, by international agencies. Zeledon is reticent in her criticism, perhaps conscious of the political gap between her and the government – almost certainly one reason for the slow response. She points to the centralised nature of the aid effort, the bureaucracy, and lack of transport. Initially, there was enough food, as international help arrived. Now she is dependent on local networks to feed people who have no work and no crops.
Some refugees decided to take direct action. Three days after our visit, 350 families occupied a state-owned farm in protest at government inaction. The under-used farm could provide plots for them all. The government’s response was to offer alternative sites, hundreds of miles away on the Caribbean coast.
How could this have happened, when world attention was focused on a problem that could be solved with perhaps half the funds collected in the British appeal?
Perhaps the simplest diagnosis is incapacity to respond, faced with 600,000 hurricane victims in Nicaragua alone. Locally, municipalities in Nicaragua, as in most southern countries, have neither skilled staff nor money. Nationally, the government declares the affected area to be a national park as a permanent memorial, uselessly sterilising land that could be resettled. Typical of Latin America, government ministers are a white elite more familiar with Miami than with their own rural hinterland.
Internationally, governments and aid agencies respond well to the initial emergency. Charities such as Oxfam and Save the Children then look to direct long-term aid to established projects to avoid funds being misused. In Posoltega, with few existing projects, the refugees miss out.
The UK ambassador, Roy Osborne, is nevertheless trying to find out why so little is happening, given that Nicaragua is one of the biggest recipients of EU funds.
On the Pan-American Highway, which crosses Posoltega, innumerable bridges which were washed away in floods are already being reconstructed.
The Casita volcano, scarred by the mudslide, is clearly visible above the village. Ironically, its name means “little house”. Exactly what every refugee family now needs.
Original post: The Guardian