`End of the world' turns into hope for Honduras

Hurricane Mitch: Battered victims, with international help, begin the awesome task of rebuilding their countries
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The Independent Online
SHANTY VILLAGES that slid into torrential rivers while residents slept. Fishing villages that now lie under the Atlantic. Trees, hundreds of years old, ripped from the earth and blown away like strands of tobacco. Children on corrugated iron rooftops or in trees waiting to be rescued by helicopters. Victims clad in black bin bags and tossed unceremoniously into mass graves.

These are some of the images left behind by Hurricane Mitch, whose winds, floods and landslides throughout Central America killed at least 11,000 people, left thousands more missing and hundreds of thousands homeless.

Mitch almost wiped Honduras off the map. Now, thanks to unprecedented world attention, sympathy, aid and reconstruction support, Hondurans believe the hurricane may put their little "banana republic" on the map as never before.

What looked the end of the world two weeks ago may be the start of a better future, with new roads, bridges and international recognition, they hope. Honduras' neighbours, notably Nicaragua, also badly hit, have similar hopes after an initially slow but eventually overwhelming response from world governments, organisations and private donors.

The world's eyes were on the elderly American astronaut John Glenn and his launch in the spaceship Discovery when Mitch hurtled towards the former British colony of Belize three weeks ago. The hurricane, one of the four strongest in history, then stopped in its tracks as though deciding where to go next before veering south to batter the island of Guanaja in the Bay of Honduras.

Foreign tourists emerged from hotel basements to find the wooden homes broken up and scattered like matchsticks. British sailors from the frigate HMS Sheffield were the first to bring food and water and help to restore power lines. Mitch then pounded northern Honduras, from the Sula valley in the west to the swampy jungles in the east where tens of thousands of Misquito Indians remain flooded and isolated today, reachable only by canoe and facing dehydration, starvation and disease.

By halting in the Caribbean, Mitch had a double effect. It lulled Central Americans into a false sense of security, at the same time scooping up rain that it then dumped for four straight days on the isthmus. Honduras' many rivers rose by a previously inconceivable 150 feet, the height of a 10-storey building, surging over the parapets of high, arched bridges and sweeping many away.

In the capital, Tegucigalpa, one of the areas worst hit, the River Choluteca, which had been a dry river bed, turned into a 150ft wall of muddy water, like a tidal wave, that destroyed its 20 bridges, swept away riverside suburbs of adobe dwellings and left the riverbank park area of the city centre under dark brown water. Try to imagine the Thames surging to a level above the parapet ofWaterloo Bridge, with destroyed homes, vehicles and bodies floating over the top.

As the water subsided - agonisingly slowly because landslides, rocks, swept-away homes and other wreckage had formed natural dams - riverside areas were left like bleak science-fiction landscapes. Ragged children, many of whom had lost their homes, risked walking on the stagnant sludge on the surface of the floodwaters to retrieve mud-covered furniture. Others dangled tin containers on strings to try to scoop up smaller items they might sell, from canned drinks to mud-caked video cassettes.

Shots rang out nightly in the darkness - power has been cut in most of the country since the disaster - as looters, some of them simply the hungry or homeless, roamed stricken areas. Owners of homes and businesses called in private security men to guard properties whose roofs and outside walls had caved in. Homeless people scavenged for mattresses to sleep on, or corrugated iron to build shelters.

With no running water in most of the capital or the country, even now, residents resorted to rivers, contaminated by human and animal cadavers and often mosquito-infested, to bathe or do their washing, causing outbreaks of skin disease, malaria, dengue fever, conjunctivitis, rat-transmitted swamp fever and a few cases of cholera. Doctors from the United States flew in to treat children with sleep disorders for post-traumatic stress.

The initial response to the predicament of a long-neglected part of the world was slow. Hondurans felt insulted by an initial offer by the US President, Bill Clinton, of only $2m (pounds 1.22m) in aid for a devastated nation of 6 million people. But after newspaper reports and television images brought the tragedy into living rooms around the world, foreign food, medicine and personnel poured in. The First Lady, Hillary Clinton, announced American aid to the region was increased to $250m and that 5,600 American troops would help with reconstruction, notably repairing roads and bridges.

I am leaving Honduras, moved by the death and destruction I saw but also by the spirit of the people. As I prepare to go, all Hondurans - the hotel staff who scraped and washed my clothes nightly, the Honduran Air Force helicopter pilots who got me to the stricken zones, the taxi drivers - tell me the same thing: "Thank you, Britain and the world, for what you have done. But come back. Don't forget us."

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