Western aid fails to reach Mitch's victims

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UNTIL JUST over two weeks ago, Santa Rosa de Aguan in Honduras was an idyllic Caribbean village of 5,000 garifunos, black descendants of slaves who survived a 16th-century shipwreck. They lived off shrimp fishing in the ocean or dairy farming in the green fields that lined the Aguan river.

Today, Santa Rosa barely exists. It took the brunt of Hurricane Mitch, which destroyed the villagers' wooden stilt homes, snapped banana trees in half and wiped out much of the area's oil-producing African palms. Then came the rains.

Five days of post-Mitch rainstorms turned the Aguan river into part of the Caribbean Sea and the village into a series of tiny islands.

This was one of the worst-hit areas of Honduras and has until now been largely ignored by the Honduran government and armed forces for a combination of political, religious, racist and business reasons.

Sailors from the Royal Navy are among the few who have brought food and water to this and other villages along the northern Honduran coast. The men and women from the frigate HMS Sheffield came in to help but pulled out on Thursday morning after a dispute with the Honduran military.

After the Sheffield's Lynx helicopter landed at the Trujillo airport to the west of here, the Hondurans stopped the seamen at gunpoint at a barbed wire roadblock as they tried to bring a lorry load of rice and beans to this area. The British forces then flew in the supplies to a patch of dry land near Santa Rosa, but the frigate has now pulled out to another area.

I reached Santa Rosa yesterday after a four-hour trip by four-wheel-drive vehicle, tractor, canoe, and on foot, wading through muddy lagoons at times up to my waist. Most of the villagers had stayed through the hurricane. About 90 died and 150 are still missing. It was from here that one woman was swept away and rescued by the Sheffield after five days drifting at sea.

Because few villagers have access to a combination of four-wheel-drive, tractor and canoe, they are isolated and largely forgotten. Since the British helicopter left, the only food and drinking water they have received has come from local church volunteers. I arrived with one such group. While they are starving and desperate for water, Honduran troops are lounging around Trujillo airport, about 20 miles away as the helicopter flies, guarding containers packed with international food that does not seem to be going anywhere.

Honduras itself is still effectively a series of islands. It was split up when the post- hurricane floods and landslides washed away sections of highways and ruptured 100 bridges. I reached Trujillo thanks to the United States Air Force who flew me in on a C-27 transport plane along with a couple of tons of rice, skidding to a hairy landing in a rainstorm.

The pilot expressed concern that the food the Americans and others were bringing here was not reaching its final destinations. To get to the worst areas, it has to go on by helicopter. But there are no helicopters here. Honduran Air Force helicopters were all flown elsewhere after the disaster, possibly for political reasons. This zone is run largely by mayors and local councillors from the Liberal Party of the Honduran President, Carlos Flores. But the armed forces are more closely allied with the National Party.

In Santa Rosa, there is a feeling that black Hondurans are being treated as second-class citizens. A few helicopters a day could feed and water this and other villages but none is coming. There are 60 soldiers of the 115th Infantry Brigade manning roadblocks around Trujillo, who have made no attempt to reach Santa Rosa.

On the edge of the Trujillo airfield, built in the Eighties at the behest of a certain Colonel Oliver North to take large C-130 transport planes that ferried in weapons, money and food for Contra guerrillas fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, there were eight large container trailers full of badly needed food when I arrived. They were still there 24 hours later, untouched, according to local residents.

In his office in a motel by the airfield, the man in charge of the relief operation, Honduran army colonel Jose Geronimo Barahona, denied reports that food aid was being diverted to businessmen with military contacts. A senior army officer has been jailed in the city of San Pedro Sula, further west along the coast, after being caught red-handed with a container full of food aid. Residents of Trujillo say they are paying twice as much as before for staples such as rice and beans.

Back in Santa Rosa the concrete kindergarten lay in ruins, having crumbled when the floods cracked its foundations. Inside, desks were scattered and the children's exercise books were scattered on the floor. On the steps of the wrecked, of the local dentist lay a soggy Bible open at the story of the prodigal son.

I got in and out with the help of local fisherman Daniel Pastillo. It was he who first reached the village in his fishing boat, saving people from roofs and taking them to safety over the last 10 days. This time, he was bringing in bags of food and water and organising the transport, including the canoes.

As I watched him - five feet tall at most - trudge through mud above his waist, carrying sacks of food on his shoulders, I read the back of his T-shirt, a quotation from the Bible's Isaiah 40:31. "They shall run and not be weary ... they shall walk and shall not faint."

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