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Struggling With Their Buried Dreams

Almost four months after a deadly mudslide hit the town, displaced survivors are downcast. 'We are in very bad shape,' one man says.

January 27, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

PANABAJ, Guatemala — Every day, small groups of survivors trickle back to this modern-day Pompeii, a town buried in mud and rock one night last fall.

Many come to scavenge wood from the dozens of trees that were toppled by the avalanche from the slopes of the San Pedro volcano. Where 4,000 people once lived, only the sound of axes striking logs breaks the silence.

Others arrive with baskets holding soup and tortillas. They've come, like Gaspar Tacaxoy and his family, to eat at the place where they've always had lunch, where their home used to stand, and where most of their neighbors remain entombed beneath them.

Old habits, Tacaxoy says, are hard to break.

"This is the only land that we've ever had," Tacaxoy said recently. He wants to rebuild his home where it once stood, even though the government has started clearing land for a new town about a quarter of a mile away.

About 700 people died in the Oct. 5 mudslide in this town on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala's western highlands. More than 600 bodies remain interred in mud too thick to excavate.

Months later, small groups of villagers are living on the mud, which has hardened into thick soil.

"I have three children buried here," said Diego Xicay, an elderly man whose home looks like a ship sinking into an ocean of soil -- the top of a doorway and the roof are still sticking out.

Xicay has built a cinderblock shelter just a few feet away. His wife hangs clothes, and his grandson plays near the tops of the half-submerged trees that saved their lives during the avalanche.

"We are in very bad shape, very sad," Xicay said. "What can I do? I don't have an ax, or even a machete to work with."

Most survivors have gone to stay with relatives and friends in the neighboring towns along Lake Atitlan, a destination popular with foreign tourists. About 1,000 remain in a camp built by international aid agencies.

Groups of townspeople begin their mornings with a short walk to Panabaj. The largest buildings in the town -- a school and a police station -- remain standing, though half-buried.

But much of the town has vanished: Several neighborhoods of humble cinderblock and adobe homes are covered by a barren plain of mud as wide as several football fields and about 20 feet thick.

The avalanche was triggered when Hurricane Stan soaked the slopes of the volcano with heavy rain. The long brown scars left from the mudslide are still visible on the volcano's verdant slopes, several hundred feet above the town.

When heavy rain fell just before Christmas, with thunder echoing off the slopes of the San Pedro and Toliman volcanoes, many people in the camp fled to the nearby city of Santiago Atitlan. To some, it seemed that the two volcanoes were "talking to each other" again, just as they had on that tragic October night.

"There are many people here who are still traumatized," said Felipe Coche, an administrator with the Roman Catholic Church in Santiago Atitlan, which has aided the townspeople. "Whenever it starts to rain, they remember."

Nicolas Tzina, a community leader, said international aid agencies have provided the displaced people with shelter, food and water. What's lacking, he said, is what the people here have always needed: good jobs.

"We had doctors from Norway, psychologists from Spain -- they stayed here 15 days, and then they went home," Tzina said. "Now we want workshops to train our people, canning factories so we can export our products ourselves."

Before Hurricane Stan, life was already difficult for the Tzutuhil Maya Indians who made up most of the town's residents. In the months since, it has become unbearable.

The middlemen who bought the hand-woven cloth of the Tzutuhil women have lowered their prices, Tzina said. With many men out of work, contractors have cut the daily wages they pay laborers to pick coffee or weed fields from about $4 to $2.

"If you have six or seven children, with that kind of money you can't make it," Tzina said. Many children are no longer going to school, because their parents cannot pay for the required uniforms and classroom materials.

Tzina can't work his small patches of corn and beans because most of the friends and relatives who used to help him are dead. Others lost their plantings to the avalanche. That's why so many people are scavenging wood to make ends meet, Tzina said.

The local Catholic archdiocese has donated the property on which the new town is to be built. Some residents aren't sure anything should be built there.

"It's too close to the old town, and the government hasn't done any studies to see if [the new location] is in danger of another avalanche," said Rafael Estrada, who leads an organization of Panabaj residents seeking government aid.

No matter where the new town is built, old Panabaj will remain a burial ground.

"There are people who wanted to go back there, but they can't," said Coche, the church administrator. "Panabaj is just a cemetery now."

The other day, the body of a child of about 5 emerged from the eroding edge of the mud plain.

In November, on the annual Day of the Dead, hundreds of refugees returned to light candles and to leave plates of food for their lost loved ones. Here, as elsewhere in Indian Latin America, people believe the dead inhabit a realm not far from that of the living.

A makeshift memorial of corrugated tin and a few crosses mark the neighborhood where hundreds died. Six crosses have been placed where Concepcion Tinoy lived with her family.

Tinoy stood silently for a long time over the pit rescuers had dug in October in a failed attempt to find her relatives. "I came here to remember," she said in Tzutuhil through an interpreter.

Estrada, the community leader, returns too, though what little remained of his home and property was cleared out long ago by scavengers and looters.

"I had 40 years of tranquil life there," Estrada said. "That beautiful rhythm of life was lost in just a couple of hours."

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