'Bodies floating in rivers, many washed into the sea - Honduras doesn't exist'

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The Independent Online
TO THE rescue workers labouring through the devastation of mud, debris and the jutting limbs of the dead, it looked like a scene out of Dante or the Old Testament.

As the torrential floods that have battered Central America for the past week subside, tales of horror are emerging from the submerged villages, from the hillsides and farmland turned to sludge, from the terrorised survivors with their accounts of loved ones screaming for help as they sank into fetid waters.

The Honduran capital was virtually a ghost town last night, with power out in most of the city. Residents trudged home, in pitch blackness to beat a 9pm to 5am curfew enforced by local soldiers.

Public transport had shut down partly because of ruptured bridges, and partly because the main petrol refinery has been cut off by floodwaters making petrol almost unavailable in the capital.

Tegucigalpa was virtually split into two cities by the floods as many residents complained about the lack of foreign aid.

In the town of El Progreso, in northern Honduras, one local official described how parents desperately pushed their children up into the highest treetops in a vain attempt to save them. In most cases, rising floodwaters first drowned the parents, then crept up to bring a slow death to the wailing children.

In north-western Nicaragua, the torrential rain filled the crater of the Casitas volcano and then crashed down the mountainside, burying several villages in mud and debris. "I thought it was a helicopter coming and I went outside to look," said Ismael Valdivas. What he saw was wave after wave of mud the height of multi-storey buildings hurtling down the ravine that runs through his village.

His father was swept away and found dead the next day five miles downhill. Two brothers were carried away by the torrent and are presumed buried. Another brother survived by clinging to a fence post for the three minutes that the surge went past.

It is almost impossible to overstate the destruction left by Hurricane Mitch. Officials have put the death toll at least 8,000, but thousands are still missing, particularly in Honduras where plains, hillsides, towns and cities were all inundated.

About a third of the houses in Tegucigalpa, are believed to have been destroyed. "Bodies are floating in the rivers, some are being washed awayinto the sea or to neigh- bouring countries," said the Bishop of Honduras, Leopold Frade. "Honduras doesn't exist any more."

As eyewitnesses and refugees straggled in from the countryside to the devastated capital, General Mario Hung Pacheco, armed forces commander, said he believed at least 11,000 people were missing in Honduras alone.

With more than 3,200 feared dead in Nicaragua, that would make Mitch the worst disaster in the western hemisphere since 23,000 were buried by a volcanic mudslide in Armero, Colombia, in 1985.

"There are 5,000 people stranded and awaiting rescue in the south-eastern region of Choluteca alone. If it does not come, they could die," General Hung Pacheco said.

For Nicaraguans, the disaster brought back memories of the 1972 earthquake that destroyed Managua and killed 5,000 people. But Mitch appeared to have eclipsed even those memories. "I have seen earthquakes, droughts, two wars, cyclones and tidal waves," said Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Managua. "But this is undoubtedly the worst thing that I have ever seen."

Both countries have declared three days of national mourning. In Nicaragua, rescuers and family members began cremating the dead, pouring petrol on them where they lay and setting them alight.

Almost every bridge in the two countries has been damaged or destroyed, making it difficult for rescue workers to operate. Honduran rescuers, backed up by the armed forces and 150 United States troops, used transport planes, helicopters and speedboats to ferry food, water and blankets to stricken areas. Yesterday, they were still plucking survivors off rooftops.

Rotting livestock and human flesh were rapidly creating the conditions for epidemics of cholera, dengue fever or other diseases, government officials said. There were reports of food shortages almost everywhere and a near-total lack of fresh water.

The Honduran government appealed to the international community for medicines for diarrhoea and for foot fungus, prevalent among survivors who have been wading in floodwaters for a week. Officials estimated there were 600,000 refugees in Honduras and up to 800,000 in Nicaragua.

In Washington, President Bill Clinton said the United States would provide $2m (pounds 1.2m) in relief aid. Red Cross officials said they would need more than $7m in disaster relief - before even beginning to deal with the the devastation to property and the Central American economy.

t A woman who survived six days stranded in the water after being washed out to sea by Hurricane Mitch was rescued 80 miles north of Honduras last night by a helicopter from the Royal Navy frigate HMS Sheffield, which had just completed disaster relief operations in the area.