Quiet heroes of Honduran relief effort

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The Independent Online
KLAAS RIEMER, a farmer from the former British colony of Belize, is one of the quiet heroes of the Hurricane Mitch disaster that struck neighbouring Honduras and much of Central America.

Like all Belizeans, Canadian-born Mr Riemer was braced for Mitch, the fourth-strongest hurricane recorded, to hit his adopted country at the end of last month and wipe out his crops. With the help of locally-based British troops and a visiting force of Royal Marines, Belizeans abandoned their coastal homes and battened down the hatches in inland shelters.

When the tempest stopped just off Belize's renowned coral reef, Mr Riemer thanked God but was concerned that someone else was going to get the brunt. He was right. Honduras was devastated.

That was why Mr Riemer was in this northern Honduran town yesterday with a large plane-load of food grown on his farm for his neighbours.

I was standing on the airstrip trying to hitch a ride on a US military cargo aircraftwhen I saw Mr Riemer unload sacks of food from a DC-4 airliner chartered by an aid group called Operation Belize Mercy.

As a result of rumours that foreign aid was falling into the hands of Honduran businessmen allied with the military, Mr Riemer was taking no chances. He personally supervised the transfer of his homegrown Californian red kidney beans and rice on to a Honduran army lorry.

Then he and a locally-based American Baptist minister, David Harms, escorted their load to Chapagua, a flood-stricken village an hour's drive away. "This way we know it's really getting to those who need it," Pastor Harms said.

"These containers have been here for a week, brim full of food," said Mr Riemer, gesturing toeight container trailers parked by the airstrip, most containing international food aid. "If I go with my own stuff, I know it's going to reach its destination."

They were alluding to reports that some of the food may be being diverted to profiteering businessmen.

While an estimated 9,000lbs of basic foods had arrived here over the five days preceding my visit, many surrounding villagers reported that they had received none.

After Mr Riemer and the pastor left with their load, an evening meeting of the local crisis committee in a motel next to the airstrip offered some interesting revelations. Taking part were the local military chief, Colonel Jose Geronimo Barahona, Trujillo's Bishop, Virgilio Lopez, the provincial governor and other dignitaries.

They came to the conclusion that a local American businessman, a mahogany furniture dealer, was their immediate problem. They said he was behind an Internet campaign which alleged that foreign food aid was being diverted with military collusion. His motivation? He had tried to buy up some local land but had been thwarted by squatters and was now wreaking his revenge. The amiable-looking Col Barahona told visiting foreign reporters not to fall for "propaganda".

"Superespacio [superslow]," replied Priscillo Ortiz, a resident of the isolated village of La Barra de Aguan, when asked how the aid distribution was working. With no help from the authorities or the military, she organised a trip to her village carrying food and clothes first by road in a small van, then by lorry before transferring to canoes and then volunteers' shoulders on a three-hour odyssey that included the risk of alligator attack.

Some Trujillo residents I spoke to suggested La Barra had been ignored because its residents were black, or perhaps because the fishing village was reputed to be a major transit point for Colombian cocaine.

In La Barra, where scores of homes were swept from their foundations into the Atlantic, residents wandered around, tending their surviving cows or pigs and sleeping in the homes of luckier neighbours.

With the village and its former roads now a string of islands in an extension of the ocean, farmers went to and fro in simple wooden canoes carved from single tree trunks - some of them leading their struggling, swimming cows behind them across the light brown floodwaters.