A drowning volcano rumbles
And people are swept off the earth,
Torn from the warmth of their families.
In their pupils remains only the image
of the last rains they will ever see.
--from "Lullaby for a Country Flooded in
Tears," by Gioconda Belli, Nicaraguan poet
Posoltega. Just the name brings shakes of the head and images of a tragedy too colossal to comprehend. Posoltega is, or rather was, a grouping of small communities located at the base of the volcano La Casita in the department of Chinandega, where I have been for a substantial part of the last two months.
There is still a stark beauty in the chain of volcanoes that marches along the spine of Nicaragua, and the volcano La Casita is customarily no different from most. There seems to have been no particular reason or explanation why this volcano vented its rage when no others did. It still sits innocently, yet starkly and chillingly visible for many miles around--one can still clearly see the wide, brown defacement where the mudslide began at the top of La Casita, and where the runnels of mud split off and entombed the victims.
On Friday, the 30th of October, after five days of unrelenting rain, the saturated earth of La Casita discharged, and a titanic barrier of mud, rocks, and trees came thundering down the slope of the volcano at an estimated 60 miles an hour, and the path of destruction was ultimately two miles wide by 15 miles long. There was no escape for most of the three thousand plus inhabitants who lived peacefully on the edge of this once picturesque mountain. Some escaped the mudslide by pure chance, but most did not, and the latest death toll stands at 2,600.
Posoltega is now a national cemetery literally and figuratively, officially dedicated by decree of the Nicaraguan government to remember those forever at rest there.
I spoke with a Red Cross worker immediately after the tragedy, and he informed me that his team had counted 1,300 visible bodies--the rest are buried and will presumably never be recovered. He also related a distressing story about spotting 30-40 people alive, partially buried in substance that he described as quicksandlike, about 100 yards from where his team was. He roped himself up and attempted to wade in for a rescue attempt, but he became mired in mud after proceeding 20 yards, and it took his team three hours to pull him out. The Red Cross team then called for a helicopter, but it never arrived, and the team had to leave due to darkness. The next day they returned to see movement from only three of the people stranded, and they had to leave them also, as no aerial assistance arrived.
Our current efforts here are to work with the emotional trauma of the aftermath of the mudslide and its effects on the survivors of Posoltega. The psychologists that my organization, TASCA, is supporting have been working in coordination with the local health ministry to detect and work with the post-traumatic stress, grief, loss, anguish, anger, and guilt that is affecting the survivors. Nicaragua is a collective society that lives in groups rather than individually, and we have heard tales from survivors who have lost up to 20 members of their family--grandparents, parents, spouses, children, cousins, and in-laws. The survivors do not necessarily consider it a blessing to be alive.
Posoltega is a clear reminder that even though there has been much progress in the reparation of the infrastructure in Nicaragua, there are areas of Central America that will be long in coming to terms with the effects of Mitch.
Next: a visit to Honduras.