From out of the mud, nations rebuild

Honduras revisited: Two months ago Central America was torn apart by Hurricane Mitch. Phil Davison, whose reports on the disaster prompted readers to contribute pounds 300,000, returns to find battered communities starting their lives anew
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MELISSA MORTIMER wanted to spend Christmas with her sister Kate in Wantage, near Oxford. Kate was expecting a baby on Christmas Day. Instead, Melissa, a 22-year-old with dual British and US nationality, was helping to rebuild Honduras from the devastation of Hurricane Mitch.

Despite her age, Melissa, born in Cheltenham but now a resident of New York state, was in charge of a team of 26 US marines and American navy "Sea Bees" - engineers - building a makeshift bridge alongside one destroyed by Mitch's floods.

A "Sea Bee" herself (the term comes from CB, or Construction Battalion) and wearing combat fatigues and a white hard hat with the emblem "safety is my responsibility", she helped to toss rocks on to wire mesh and concrete culverts to ensure the bridge was in place by Christmas.

That helped to restore Honduras's vital highway 15 between the capital, Tegucigalpa, and the north of the country, allowing many Hondurans to make Christmas and New Year visits to relatives they had not seen since the hurricane. It will also help Hondurans to take the vital coffee crop - now their biggest export - to market.

Christmas Day offered a decent meal at Soto Cano (a US air force base near the capital), but then it was back to bridge building, ensign Mortimer told me as she nibbled from an MRE, or "meal-ready-to-eat". These are the US military rations she and her team live on out here in the wilds, in a military tent she shares with two fellow women engineers.

American troops also began deploying "anti-mine" dogs last week to sniff out up to 70,000 landmines left over from Central American wars but now feared to have drifted loose during Mitch's floods. The Americans had to overcome an initial problem. The dogs had been trained in Holland and at first reacted only to commands in Dutch.

After a slow response at first from the world, aid and assistance have poured into Honduras, Nicaragua and the rest of Central America since Mitch dumped five days of rain on the isthmus in late October and early November. The US has provided several hundred million dollars in aid, as well as the navy bridge builders, helicopter pilots, marines and army troops.

British Royal Marines and navy personnel have gone but British civil engineers will be involved in reconstruction work after surveys by the Department for International Development (DFID). Private British groups such as Christian Aid have kept the help coming.

With DFID and the British Red Cross, Christian Aid has sent three cargo ships of rice, beans, salt, blankets and canned foods to Honduras and two more ships are due. Ironically, the ships were banana boats this time, bringing food rather than exporting Honduras's most famous fruit.

Even the Falkland Islanders have chipped in for a water project on the island of Guanaja, off Honduras's northern coast, where the hurricane first hit.

In short, Honduras, Nicaragua and the rest of Central America have not been forgotten. Except, many residents complain, by their own governments.

Foreigners are building roads and bridges and bringing food. But not everyone is seeing the food and many still need shelter. There were an estimated 500,000 people homeless in Honduras over Christmas, some sleeping on church floors, others in barracks, many in the open on the sites where there homes were swept away.

The latest outcry has come from the country's middle class, who complain that they are still paying mortgages on destroyed homes while having to live in cheap hotels or with relatives.

With the government overwhelmed by the tragedy, much of the aid effort is being carried out by private individuals or companies. A case in point: the local manager of the DHL courier company, Guatemalan Oscar Caceres, is using his aircraft to ferry food and other supplies to storm victims.

More than 100,000 children will have to attend school in tents next month because their schools were destroyed, flooded or will still be used as shelters. This year's school term was suspended because of a lack of surviving classrooms.

Psychologists say thousands of children and adults alike are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and need psychological help. "Adult victims need to get back to work. Children need to get back to school," said Nuvia Maradiaga, a psychologist.

There was an eerie atmosphere in central Tegucigalpathis week as Ministry of Public Health workers, dressed injump suits and wearing masks and rubber boots, wandered the streets fumigating against rats. At least four people have died from leptospirosis, usually spread by rats, and there are a further 85 cases nationally as stagnant flood-water covering animal and human corpses remains uncleared. "It's not quite an epidemic, but it's worrying," said the Public Health minister, Marco Antonio Rosa.

The stench of death has lifted from Tegucigalpa but has been replaced by an all-pervasive dust from dried mud, infected by human faeces because of the lack of sanitary facilities, which burns the eyes, causes respiratory problems and leaves a bitter taste on the tongue. Ice cream vendors sell their wares within yards of the muddy lake in central Tegucigalpa caused by the floods.

To clear the lake, still believed to hide many corpses, the authorities would have to blow a hole in an accidental dike - caused by a landslide - that still blocks the Choluteca river. They are afraid to do so for fear the surge would wash away more riverside homes.

In surrealistic scenes at the weekend, citizens lit candles, placed them on floating ashtray-like dishes with notes carrying the names of loved ones and pushed them down the river in a ritual they believed would lead them to missing relatives.

While the Honduran government recently downgraded its death toll from 7,000 to 6,000, up to 11,000 may still be missing. Most were unregistered poor families living inriverside shanty towns.

As Christmas approached, crime returned to the streets. With an initial post-Mitch overnight curfew now lifted, groups of youths roam the streets at night, robbing and sometimes raping. Armed guards stand outside every store or fast-food restaurant.

The need to feed children has also led to a rise in prostitution. In the little town of Bethlehem, actually a seedy suburb of Tegucigalpa, the new mayor, Vilma de Castellanos - the widow of Cesar "Fatty" Castellanos, the mayor who died in a helicopter crash after the hurricane - pledged to close down Bethlehem's dozens of bordellos.

In a stunning contrast to the squalor and poverty , a glitzy new mall opened up before Christmas with marble floors and designer stores. In the mall's Osh Kosh children's shop, a baby suit cost more than pounds 20, the weekly wage in better times.

"This is an insult," said Gustavo Flores, a street vendor who lost his riverside home in the hurricane and was wandering around the mall to keep warm. "The ricachos [the very rich] just seem to get richer the worse things get for us."

In 'The Independent' on Monday Phil Davison talks to survivors of the hurricane