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No help for refugees fleeing clouds of fire

Phil Davison speaks to victims of the Montserrat eruptions
St Peter's, Montserrat -- Mary Irish, 87, born to slaves on a cotton plantation, is now in many ways worse off than when she was a child labourer during the First World War. She sleeps on the canvas of a wooden- framed cot, with no mattress, alongside 57 other women and children in the stone-floored Anglican Church of St Peter's. The stench of sweat is overwhelming.

As she told me her story yesterday, a siren wailed, telling us the Soufriere volcano was about to blow again about four miles away, well within range of ash, gas and stones. But Mary was worried about only whether she would get bread for lunch as she had eaten no breakfast.

"Since we come here, we don't get nothin'. The government give us 100 dollars (pounds 25) in food vouchers a month but I'm not a well woman. I can't walk far," she said. To our left was a rusty fridge, shared by all 58 refugees. To our right was the blue and white painted pulpit, now used as a cupboard.

Outside, a lean-to provided a single toilet. Down a slope of overgrown grass, among gravestones and beneath a crimson-blossoming Flamboyant tree, was a breezeblock square serving as a cold water shower. On various gravestones, refugees sat and scrubbed clothes in pales or plastic basins of water.

The scene was a pitiful example of how slow and disorganised Britain and the local government have been in providing decent conditions for the 1,300 homeless. Some have been put up with families in private homes,others are living in tents at a camp at Gerald's Bottom in the north. This week's regular eruptions, forcing evacuation of an earlier buffer zone, have made things far worse.

"I was in another church first, in Frith's, but dey evacuate dat on Monday when de volcano blow again," said Mary, her head wrapped in floral cloth from the same curtain material as her dress. "Dey wouldn't even let me take my mattress. We no get time take nothin'." On her feet are a pair of tattered, oversized basketball shoes her son James, living in England, brought her during his last trip several years ago. Just after we spoke, the volcano blew. Mary did not venture outside to see the churning mushroom cloud of brown and grey gas and ash that surged from the crater.

But then the church was bombarded by a storm of pebbles that blacked out the sun. Birds flew wildly in panic and the volcano created what was like a heavy hail storm covering the entire island in a thick layer of what looked and felt like dry cement.

The refugees - some, like Mary, homeless for the two years since the volcano first erupted, have arranged the pews in squares to enclose their own "homes." Some have put up hospital-like screens for a degree of privacy. Against one inside wall, 42-year-old refugee Delores Henderson has managed to set up a wooden loom to weave cotton for clothes.

Sitting with me on a gravestone, housewife Linda Daley told me how the volcano's pyroclastic flow - an avalanche of red-hot gas and ash - nearly killed her on June 25 in Harris's village. "I be washin' some clothes when dis stuff come up like a mighty sea," she said. "It don't make no noise. It come up with a mighty rushin' ind I think God was in that wind 'cos it blow away the heat. I got behind de school wall den I see fire over my head and my washbasin melt in front of me. I call up to Jesus and say, Lord have mercy on me.

"Now, de government no help us at all. All dey give us is papers. I don't even have shoes so I can go to church. I suffocate wit de breath of the people here. I feel sick. Ask dem to get me a house, please."

Fifty yards below St Peter's Anglican church, the scenes are even more heart-rending. In a single-room former stone schoolhouse, 50 elderly or mentally ill refugees live and sleep on cots in what they call Scraps Memorial Centre. They call it that because they all try to make basic handicrafts from scraps of cotton material.

In one corner, 104-year-old Issly Bob slumps over his cot, slurping rice for breakfast from a plastic bowl. In another, 7-year-old Elizabeth Francis, a tall, beautifully-spoken refugee from the township of St. Patrick's, swats flies from her 43-year-old physically and mentally-disabled son Melvin, crumpled in a cot and wearing a dust ask to keep off volcanic ash.