Storms leave one million as refugees

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The Independent Online
COMING OUT of their numbing state of shock for the first time since a storm called Mitch devastated their homes, residents of the hillside village of La Sosa finally let loose the tears as they watched 25 of their neighbours, black plastic bags their only shroud, tossed into a deep mass grave.

With onlookers pulling shirts or blouses over their mouths to lessen the stench, two Honduran doctors carried the body bags by the ends and threw them into the 30ft ditch. Each time bag hit the rest of the pile, La Sosa residents winced and sobbed.

The doctors then tossed in two wooden crosses, the neighbours crossed themselves and a bright yellow bulldozer pushed soggy earth over the communal grave until the land was once again level.

The mass burial on Wednesday evening was the first since Hurricane Mitch's rains destroyed much of Hondurasand brought home the tragedy - that it is now feared to have taken 18,000 lives in Honduras and more than 2,000 more in neighbouring Nicaragua.

More than a week after the hurricane struck and departed, the Honduran government isconcerned at the slow pace with which international aid has been arriving. In hospitals across the country exhausted staff are exasperated at the lack of urgently needed medicines.

The bodies, those of people who died in the early rains that preceded last weekend's devastating floods, had lain unclaimed in a morgue across the Choluteca river, where residents had complained of their stench because the morgue had no power to run its freezers. There were also 16 unclaimed bodies yesterday in the main morgue in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Quick burial is considered vital as the authorities fear epidemics from the country'slack of clean water. The Health Minister, worried about cholera, yesterday began a vaccination campaign in refugee shelters - now housing more than 1 million Hondurans.

Also of concern was the prevalence of "jungle foot". The government appealed for powder and medicine against the fungus, caused by constantly wet feet.

The authorities chose the village of La Sosa to help to solve their burial problem because it had been devastated by landslides caused by Mitch and was largely abandoned. In La Sosa yesterday there was a sheer 100ft cliff of wet earth where hundreds of its simple stone homes had overlooked the river just over a week ago.

Above the cliff, hundreds more homes lay destroyed, many of them perched at 45- degree angles, almost certain to plunge into the river with the next heavy rainfall.

When a man in a yellow hat, either a rescue worker or a resident trying to retrieve his belongings, crawled into one such house yesterday, hundreds of curious onlookers on the other side of the river yelled at him that he was an idiot and would be killed if the house tilted even a couple of inches more.

On the banks of the same river yesterday, in the old town centre of Tegucigalpa, members of the child-help group Casa Alianza toured morgues, hospitals and refugee shelters for 20 missing street children the centre usually feeds and tries to educate. They are among some 11,000 people still missing in Honduras.

t The Independent today launches an appeal for the victims of Hurricane Mitch in the Caribbean in conjunction with the Disasters Emergency Committee representing 15 UK charities. Full details on page 3.