`We've not had food or water from anyone'

Hurricane Mitch: Muddy survivors appeal for aid as the death toll mounts from Central America's killer storm
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The Independent Online
THE 100,000 HOMELESS souls of this Honduran banana town could not wait to see us. With their airstrip closed, roads cut and no power or communications, they ran and stumbled in their ragged clothes along a mudbank between flooded banana plantations to meet our military helicopter.

They thought we were bringing the first outside food, water or medicine they had seen since the floods and mudslides that followed Hurricane Mitch last week, now feared to have killed at least 18,000 Central Americans. Yesterday the Honduran government confirmed 5,273 dead and 11,085 missing.

As we tried to land on a 10-foot wide strip of slippery bank, we saw them race from their makeshift dwellings to see what we had brought.

Most of them had dried mud up to their waists or shoulders from trying to return to their flooded homes.

Having commandeered the Honduran Air Force helicopter at an air force base, we disappointed them. We had come empty-handed. But we gave them a shock when our helicopter missed its landing and slid tailfirst into the muddy River Chamelecon. My two American colleagues and I leapt from the open door with the gunner. The townsfolk instinctively jumped on to the front of the helicopter 's skids to stop it sliding backwards but it slithered into the swampy water with the the pilot, Captain Frank Zepeda, and his co-pilot suspended in their seats. Fearing an explosion, they leapt several yards to safety, their craft stuck there indefinitely, a new monument to the damage of Mitch. We all escaped with scratches.

What we saw next was as horrific as the bloated bodies we had seen on the flight to this town near San Pedro Sula, in the north of the country. The bodies had lain, like Michelin men, in what looked like South-East Asian paddy fields. In fact, the fields were inundated banana, sugar cane or citrus plantations which turned the normally lush green Honduran countryside into a massive brown delta. Some of the bodies were so twisted they were almost indistinguishable from flood-bent banana trees.

The people in La Lima begged us for food or water. We gave them the leftovers from our water bottles. When the local fire engine arrived to douse the Huey helicopter in case of explosion, the locals thought it was bringing water for them. Soldiers had to push up a barbed-wire fence to keep them from trying to drink from the fire engine's hose.

Eight days after the former Hurricane Mitch flooded this small nation it was clear that talk of domestic or international aid was meaningless here and, apparently, in much of the country.

"You're the first helicopter that has tried to land here. We've seen not a morsel of food from our government, not a drop of water, or anything from anyone else," said Johanna Sanchez, a homeless mother. The airstrip in La Lima, long a production and export centre for the Chiquita Brands banana company, has been closed for the past eight days, its runway under a foot of mud. It is cut off by road because all main bridges have been cut in this country of hundreds of rivers.

"Please tell them to bring us some food and medicine," said Maria Elena Vallecido, a 40-year-old mother of seven. We trudged through banana trees to see her "home," one of hundreds built along the 23 September Highway, formerly the main road to San Pedro Sula. It was built from a frame of apple tree branches, its walls polythene, patched up with plastic bags, its roof a sheet of corrugated iron.

They all lived in a space of 15 feet by 10 feet, half of their "floor" the highway's tar, the other half the grass of its central reservation.

Mrs Vallecido's husband, Nicholas, had worked all his life in the Chiquita plantations, like most other men here. His job was to clean up chopped- off banana tree branches for $5 (pounds 3) a day. Now he and most of this town know they will be out of work for at least a year, since Honduras's banana crop has been destroyed.

While the locals criticised the Americans, four large planeloads of aid and personnel flew in from Mexico yesterday.