Measured hope in Nicaragua

BY CHRIS HERLINGER | EL TOLOLAR | January 11, 1999


EL TOLOLAR, Nicaragua (Jan. 11, 1999) -- It is a clear, hot, pleasant day -- warm to the skin -- but eerily quiet. The foot of La Casita is stilled by a numbing, menacing silence.

Look up, and you see a huge, barren expanse -- as if a giant creature

from science fiction had furiously clawed away at the side of the

mountain. Look below your feet, and you see that you're standing on

what was torn away in a furious avalanche of water, rock and mud.

This was the single worst disaster spawned by Hurricane Mitch -- a

mudslide consuming dozens of villages, killing more than 2,000 people

and perhaps as many as 4,000.

Look around and you see the foundation of what was once a

family's home; vultures overhead, perhaps eyeing another body in the

cane fields; a cross marking where human remains were discovered

and quickly buried.

Listen, and you hear the testimonies of a people still trying to make sense

of it all a month later. Jose Antonio Montoya, a shy, reserved boy of 13,

was the sole survivor in his family, losing his parents, grandparents and

more than 30 immediate and extended family members. He has little to

say; his distant eyes tell the story.

Peasant David Hodgson, 33, takes visitors to the site of his former home,

now marked by a single stone. He crosses the flats now entombed in

mud and re-enacts the day's events. He was slaughtering a chicken

when the mudslide began, and as he shouted above the din of rain and

wind, he, his wife, Ramona Silva, and their three children were swept

away in a 100-mph rush of water and mud. The young couple held onto

a tree trunk, but Ramona lost her grip and was swept away, although the

children survived.

Now, one of the children, an eight-year-old daughter, blames her father

for "letting mama die."

"It happened so fast," Hodgson said.

Hodgson's face still bears scabs and scars, and the shirt and pants he

now wears are a gift from a friend -- the force of the water and mud

stripped him naked.

The testimonies are searing -- 24 people in the community of 1,200

perished, and 60 families lost their homes -- and it is not hard to hear the

continued fear in people's voices. Next year could prove another wet

year, and volcano eruptions are always a possibility.

But there is still measured hope here -- in several respects Tololar was

luckier than many communities. It was not wiped out, and it has remained

unified. As you hear people speak of their experiences, it is clear that

Tololar residents are recounting a communal memory of shared hardship

and perseverance.

Two days after the event, four work teams of about 20 members each

were organized within Tololar to bury the dead, remove debris, trees and

rocks, and make roads passable again.

The community has not waited for government assistance, and a good

thing, too -- as of the end of November the only material aid Tololar had

received was from Council of Evangelical Churches (CEPAD) and

Interchurch Center for Theological and Social Studies (CIEETS). The

two agencies have long histories of working in this region of northwest

Nicaragua on various health, housing and pastoral projects, and are

working cooperatively in the current emergency response to Mitch.

Looking ahead, the organizations are likely to provide assistance that

includes seeds to plant crops in small plots not affected by the

mudslides, as well as housing reconstruction aid.

Tololar's relative self-reliance in responding to the disaster is not

surprising, given its history as a farming cooperative organized during

the Sandinista revolution. Indeed, this region -- not far from the colonial

capitol of Leon, a long-time Sandinista stronghold -- has had a

tug-and-pull relationship with the current Nicaraguan government of

Arnoldo Aleman, even before complaints of slow and uneven

government response to Mitch became common.

"This hit the government hard, and they have not had the capacity to

respond well," said the Rev. Gilberto Provedor, a Baptist pastor and

national coordinator of CEPAD's emergency work. "Power isn't enough.

You have to have resources."

"If it weren't for our partner relationships, I don't know what we would

have done," said the Rev. Francisco Ortiz, regional coordinator of

CEPAD.

At least among members of Nicaragua's Protestant community,

complaints have centered on the decision by the Nicaraguan government

to designate the Roman Catholic Church as the lead agency for disaster

response in the entire country -- a decision which Protestant agencies

say has posed challenges.

In some areas, including Leon, Protestant organizations have worked

well with local Catholic officials. But in other areas, such as Matagalpa,

Protestant organizations have experienced difficulties, including

temporary confiscation of some supplies. The Aleman government has

since announced the formation of a "second-stage" rehabilitation

program, and organizations such as CEPAD and CIEETS are working to

ensure something of a genuine national ecumenical response during the

reconstruction phase.

This is critical, but it is just one part of a larger, vexing issue. In talking

with agency officials and disaster survivors alike there is a persistent

sense that Nicaragua has reached a crucial juncture in its history -- that

Mitch and its aftermath have exposed the faultlines of an already weary

and exhausted society.

In 20 years' time, Nicaragua has experienced the downfall of the Somoza

dictatorship, the ascendancy of the Sandinistas and their revolution, the

U.S.-subsidized Contra war, the turning out of the Sandinistas in popular

elections and years of economic stagnation.

"We were already a country of disaster victims before Mitch," Jairo

Arce, a Mennonite pastor and national coordinator of CIEETS pastoral

work, said recently as he drove visitors from Managua to Matagalpa to

inspect hurricane damage. "Even before Mitch we were a country of 80

percent poor, and 40 percent of that 80 percent were living in extreme

poverty.

"Mitch has exposed us for who and what we are as a nation."

As in Honduras, the economic damage in Nicaragua is severe, the social

costs enormous and a growing environmental crisis, worsened by years

of deforestation, has now been made worse. "The disaster has

underscored economic, agricultural and ecological problems," said

Benjamin Cortes, secretary general of CIEETS. As in Honduras, the sight

of countless mudslides on hills and mountains are common, as Arce

pointed out on the winding trip to Matagalpa. "This has changed the

landscape," he said. "It is incredible."

Perhaps most concretely is the issue of landmines planted during the

Contra war. The estimated number of landmines in Nicaragua varies from

the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands, and the storms and

mudslides are believed to have dislodged and moved many mines both

within Nicaragua and across the border into Honduras. At least two

people have died from landmine explosions since the hurricane, and

authorities are bracing for years of landmine-caused fatalities.

"We can't just think of the moment," said Provedor, who noted that

beyond the immediate emergency of flooded homes is the need to ensure

that the poor are not again forced by economics to live next to rivers. "I

want to see people live in dignity," he said. "When people are not living in

riverbeds, when there is bread on the table, then we'll have made real

advances."

That vision is alive in Tololar, too, where David Hodgson -- thankful that,

as he put it, "God has given me life" -- said he has no other choice but to

look toward the future.

"Life goes on," he said. "The present and future are here. The past is

past. We'll try to forget little by little and to have a vision for the future."

With the mid-day sun beating down, it is quiet again, and Provedor

reflects on all that has passed before on this spot. "God has given you

life," he says to the residents of Tololar, "and where there is life, there is

hope."


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