'There are thousands of bodies down there. An underwater town'
Rotting corpses, debris and muddy water fill the Honduran capital after Hurricane Mitch. Phil Davison reports from Tegucigalpa
Sunday 08 November 1998
Angel Ramon Moncada, a 53-year-old night-watchman at the riverside offices of the Honduran ministry of public health, ran uphill for his life when floods caused by Hurricane Mitch turned the Choluteca River into a torrent that would have stretched the imagination even of Hollywood.
"It sounded like a thousand trains coming through a tunnel. I thought it was an earthquake," he said, drawing an arc through the air with his hands to describe how the torrent came a week ago yesterday. Although some heeded the government's warnings to leave last weekend, Moncada and his friends said thousands more remained, never dreaming the river could rise not only to their doorsteps but over their roofs and over 100ft bridges, reaching the height of eight-storey buildings and beyond.
In terms of death and destruction, the undulating Honduran capital - built on a series of hills by the Spanish conquistadores after discovering silver and massacring the local Mayan Indians - was the area worst hit. By the time it arrived here, in neighbouring Nicaragua and the rest of the Central American isthmus, Hurricane Mitch had been downgraded to a tropical storm, lulling residents into a sense of security. Many were asleep when their homes were swept away, and are now among an estimated 11,000 Hondurans still missing.
Official estimates now speak of more than 6,400 Hondurans dead. With close to 4,000 deaths in Nicaragua and possibly 1,000 more in Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica, Mitch challenges the 1985 Armero, Colombia, mudslide as the worst disaster ever in the western hemisphere. Some 23,000 townsfolk were killed when a building-sized wall of mud wiped Armero from the map.
I was with the first group of rescuers to reach Armero a few hours after that disaster, to find hundreds of villagers, their eyes the only white against bodies caked in dried mud, sitting on a hilltop in a daze. But the death toll this time may be higher, since Tegucigalpa and other areas of Honduras face a serious threat of epidemics.
In the centre of the devastated Honduran capital you can taste, not just smell, the stench of death, and feel like washing out your mouth when you get out. Moncada and fellow riverside residents are in no doubt of what they will find when the coffee-coloured floodwaters that still cover a swathe of the city centre finally recede. The debris - houses, bits of bridges, vehicles, trees and animals - has blocked the remaining arches of battered bridges, turning them into dikes that are holding the water inside town. The Mallol bridge, which has remained intact, is now just above the muddy surface, but on its upstream side there is a stagnant, almost solid mass of sludge, dead animals, human body parts and other stinking debris.
"When the river goes down to its normal level, you'll see a dead underwater town down there. There are thousands of bodies under there, trapped against the bridges along with houses, cars, buses," said the night-watchman, standing in the riverside gardens of the old Honduran presidential palace, now a museum. We were only 50 yards from the country's parliament building and central bank, the heart of the historic old town. "There are thousands more over there," he went on, gazing over to the virtual island of Comayaguela. He had seen many people around its riverside markets and seafood bars last Saturday, not wishing to abandon their property to potential looters, even in the dark small hours when the torrent first came through.
The Death in Venice feeling is strongest in Comayaguela, where the deserted streets are now canals of brown water and sludge. Dozens of vultures attacked bloated animals as we watched. "The zopilotes prefer human flesh," said Moncada. "They go wild when a human body floats up." Twenty yards from this stinking carnage, people lined up to buy fresh milk and cheese from a farmer's van.
Despite the danger of cholera, malaria and dengue fever, the living have been prohibited from removing dead bodies; instead, the so-called forenses (state forensic doctors) are called in, eerie figures in spaceman-like suits, masks and gloves. Unidentified victims were buried in communal graves holding between five and 25 bodies each. Before a bulldozer moved in to engulf them in earth, a priest sprinkled holy water over the grave.
Looting is beginning to appear amid the carnage: immediately after nightfall on Friday, gunshots echoed around the old town and Comayaguela, sending people running from the area, as policemen opened fire to warn off thieves. It was one of the reasons the government imposed a national ban on the sale of alcohol in shops, bars or hotels. "We don't have water and now they've taken away our only refuge, our trago [tipple]," complained one woman.
Tegucigalpa remained cut off by road from the rest of the country yesterday, and all over Central America rescue workers are struggling to bring aid to victims of the catastrophe. Honduras and Nicaragua are estimated to have lost half their economic potential at a stroke; former United States president Jimmy Carter, who is visiting the region, said full recovery could take 10 to 15 years, and called for foreign debt to be cancelled.
In Guatemala, 25 cases of cholera have been reported, according to the public health ministry on Friday. In the Nicaraguan town of Posoltega, where mudslides claimed some 2,000 lives, doctors suspected a 6-year-old girl shaking with fever had contracted malaria. Dr Rigoberto Sampson dabbed Justa Pastora Povera Guillen with a wet cloth and gave her half a tablet of Tylenol. There was little he could do: "We are lacking medicine. We can't give her blood tests to see whether it's malaria, but because of the situation here, I think it is."
Among those working sleeplessly to rescue or aid victims over the past two weeks - last weekend's catastrophe was preceded by a week of torrential rain and flooding - was Peter Boden, a 51-year-old Briton who has lived for many years in San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras. The area around the town remains under 20 or 30 feet of water, its crops wiped out, but yesterday the airport finally reopened to allow badly-needed food, water and medicine to flow in.
"The airport was under 10 feet of muddy water," Mr Boden said yesterday. "I was here in 1974 when Hurricane Fifi hit [killing an estimated 10,000 Hondurans] but the flooding this time was far worse. When we finally got airborne in our Cessnas, we realised the scale of the tragedy. I estimated around 3,600 people on the roofs of their homes, barely above the surface of the flood. Others were on dikes, completely stranded, waving to us to help. They had had no food or water for four or five days. We managed to drop supplies to them, but some people were swept away in the torrent when dikes broke.
"I saw a little boy washed away near the Piedras bridge. His mother was frantic. She was screaming and clinging to all she had left in the world, which appeared to be little more than her cat."
Mr Boden believes there are still thousands of Hondurans stranded in outlying areas who have not yet been located, and who may be dying of starvation and thirst. Unconfirmed reports say some people may still be huddling in treetops, undiscovered and forgotten about.
"On Friday, a Honduran air force pilot came across 50 children on a tiny island of higher ground," said Mr Boden yesterday, as he organised flight after flight to try to find victims. "They'd been there without a morsel of food or a drop of water for a week. There was a woman who gave birth on one such island in the most horrible circumstances. We got her and her baby out.
"We also rescued a little girl who was half blind, with an awful skin rash and sunstroke. But I think she'll be OK. There are already some cases of cholera reported. Any day now, with the water stagnating, there'll be millions of zancudos [mosquitoes]. That's what happened after Fifi."
Up in the Caribbean, where Hurricane Mitch first roared through more than two weeks ago, hope was abandoned for another Briton, Guyan March, skipper of the popular tourist cruise sailing ship, the Fantome, and 30 other crew members. Rescuers have given up the search for the tall-masted vessel, owned in the past by the Guinness family and Aristotle Onassis, but recently used by the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises line for holidays at sea, advertised as being less formal than on the big liners.
Captain March had dropped off his 100 passengers in Belize as Hurricane Mitch approached the Central American coast two weeks ago. He hauled out to sea, thinking it would be safer there than at anchor, which is a general rule among seamen. This time, it seems, it was the wrong move.
Leading article, page 24
The Independent and The Independent on Sunday have launched an appeal for victims of the central American disaster. Readers are asked to send donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee, which will co- ordinate the work of 15 major charities to provide food, shelter, clean water, medical aid and longer-term reconstruction aid to hundreds of communities in the region. Cheques should be made payable to "Disasters Emergency Appeal".
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