Journalists and a clown leave mark on 'Camp Hope'

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The Independent US

If the trapped miners were ever briefly tempted during the long months they have been stuck underground to wonder whether the world had forgotten about their plight, they are certain to be rapidly disabused of that notion when they eventually reach the surface.

As the operation to rescue "Los 33" enters its final stages, the scene at Camp Hope has come to resemble a rolling-news equivalent of Glastonbury, complete with row after row of camper vans and – judging by the growing stench – a pressing shortage of fully functioning mobile toilets.

Viewed from the surrounding hillsides, the encampment, which started out as a small collection of tents, has now sprawled from one side of the valley to another. Four bulldozers were yesterday flattening a new section of campsite the size of two football pitches, to cope with new arrivals.

More than 1,000 journalists are expected to trek to this remote patch of Andean hillside to follow the final stages of the gripping rescue operation, creating the greatest media circus Latin America has seen since the days of Eva Peron.

Press conferences by Chile's dashing mining minister, Laurence Golborne, are already turning farcical as dozens of television microphones, on ever-longer poles, compete for space within listening-distance of his well-structured jaw line.

Pressure on journalists to deliver fresh "exclusives" is creating further tensions among the press corps. BBC employees at the scene are furious with the Daily Mail's correspondent, who wrote an article critical of the broadcaster's allegedly extravagant decision to send 25 employees to cover the event.

Meanwhile, reporters driving recklessly along the bumpy road to the San Jose mine were involved in 15 accidents during the weekend. In one of the worst, police say a crew from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua – who are clearly given freer rein to report on mining accidents here than they are back home – managed to roll a truck.

The local economy is naturally thriving. Every hotel in Copiapo, the nearest major town to the mine, is booked solid, and locals are renting out their spare rooms to new arrivals. Taxi drivers have increased fares exponentially; a return journey to Camp Hope to the centre of town is now being quoted at upwards of US$150 (£95).

At the centre of it all, the families of the trapped men, who have made the camp their home since August, remain remarkably stoic. With hundreds of outlets seeking interviews, the pressure on their time is immense. A small minority have started demanding cash for their thoughts; rather more have wearily withdrawn into a fenced-off area from which the media are excluded. Elsewhere at Camp Hope, a kitchen run by the local Mayor's office serves free food and drink to residents and reporters alike, and a small school has been established for the 30 or so children who have taken up temporary residence.

In keeping with long-standing Chilean tradition, the Camp even has its own resident clown, Rolly, who is keeping young residents entertained with balloon tricks, stage shows, and old-fashioned slapstick.

"I've been here 28 days delivering fun and happiness," the clown said. "Work begins at seven in the morning and ends at nine in the evening. The little ones are already so happy that their fathers are finally coming home, and whenever I'm around, they get even happier!"

Rolly's current stunt of choice is to fashion a fake microphone from party balloons, which he stuffs in the face of visiting newsmen. With a satirical flourish, he then asks journalists the somewhat fatuous question they have been endlessly asking the families of miners: "How are you?"