Still seeking safety after eruption

One month after the eruption of the Fuego volcano in Guatemala, people are evacuating their homes and seeking shelter in nearby towns.

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The sky went dark in towns near the Fuego volcano in southern Guatemala on June 3. Glendi Toma, 22, was at work in the nearby city of Escuintla when she got a phone call from her husband, Henry, telling her the volcano was erupting, sending rocks into the air.

Toma called her mother, who was looking after her two small children in San Miguel Los Lotes, high on the southern slope. “I told her to get out, because it was raining rocks. When she told me they could not leave, that they waited for God’s will, I asked her to take care of the children.”

The town was buried by lava, rocks, and hot ash. Toma visited all the shelters in Escuintla, but could find few survivors from Los Lotes. When she finally made it back to Los Lotes, she found her brother dead and half-buried in the ash now covering her home. “When I saw him, I understood my children had died,” she says. Altogether, Toma lost 13 family members and was still trying to find the bodies of about half of them.

A deadly disaster

The eruption of Fuego emitted pyroclastic flow, a deadly hot mixture of ash, rock, poisonous gas, and lava. Official figures from the government’s office of disaster assistance, known as CONRED, initially stated that 113 people had died, but that many others were missing, and that nearby shelters were housing 3,600. (The estimates were based on local population census and estimates of average numbers of people in families.) More than a month after the eruption, CONRED increased its estimate of fatalities to 332, but other humanitarian groups estimate nearly 10 times more have died.

The Fuego volcano eruption

The Fuego volcano eruption affected people near Escuintla, just south of Guatemala City and Antigua. Oxfam America

Oxfam provided assistance to people fleeing their homes and seeking shelter in Escuintla and other communities at the foot of the volcano, providing hygiene kits (with soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, toilet paper, sanitary items for women, and diapers for babies) to 2,640 families.

About the same number were also provided cooking kits (pots, pans, and utensils), as well as 550 portable water filters. Oxfam is also providing seeds (maize and beans) and tools to help 3,300 affected farmers restart their agricultural work during the rainy season, and will also distribute roughly $US40 in cash to 2,100 families, which will help them meet their immediate needs.

Seeking shelter

Irma Yolanda Harrarte de Dabón says Oxfam delivered hygiene kits and about 24 water filters to the Murray D. Lincoln primary school, where she is director. She arrived at work the morning after the eruption to find more than 100 people, many of them burned, seeking shelter at the school. A month later she has 80 remaining, living in classrooms, sharing two showers, and all the cleaning and cooking duties. Students are meeting in tents outside on school grounds. The school nurse’s office is now a pharmacy, with Red Cross staff on site 24 hours a day.

“We had to find them clothes, sheets and blankets and mattresses … we had nothing,” she says, adding that they requested hairdressers in the neighborhood to come help survivors whose hair had been burned.

Aid came from all directions, and they now have a large shipping container to hold it all parked on the street in front of the school, and a newly donated freezer to store food. De Dabón says most of the assistance is from private sources, nongovernmental groups, and churches.

Oxfam also provided a large, three-burner gas stove so they can prepare food for the families, and boil water to sterilize baby bottles.

Edwin López, 35, and a married father of three girls now living at the Lincoln school, says each of the classrooms has its own water filter, and he urges all the families to filter the water before drinking it. “When people first got here they had stomach problems,” he says. “But now it’s getting better.”

Several families live in each classroom, where they sleep on mattresses on the floor. The walls are covered with lessons in Spanish and English and student art. López’s 6-year-old daughter, Nicole, watches cartoons on a small television, and eats a banana. Outside, a boy barely old enough to walk holds a stick the size of a pencil, and swipes at a single piece of candy suspended on a string.

López is a leader of the families at the shelter. He represents them in meetings with aid providers and tries to ensure everyone has food, clean water, and is getting the help they need. He’s one of the few people with a car, so he also acts as an ambulance driver. He’s had to make several trips to the hospital, most recently with a severely asthmatic baby who stopped breathing in the middle of the night.

“It went dark like midnight”

López and most of the others at the Lincoln school are from El Rodeo, just down the road from San Miguel Los Lotes. On the day of the eruption, he and his family were getting ready for his youngest daughter’s first birthday, rushing around picking up a cake and putting candy in the piñata, when they noticed ash coming out of the volcano and heard it rumble.

“We don’t usually pay any attention to that, but it erupted for hours, and when the ashes came down we had to leave. It went dark like midnight, and we only just got out,” he said. “I went back to Los Lotes to look for my cousins, and I saw a lot of people burning—women and children on the ground on fire—and I had to run across the roof of one house to get away from the lava. It was like hot jelly everywhere. I saw one man buried in ash up to his waist, burned to death.”

Lopez and his family want to return home to El Rodeo, and he has been back to check on their house. It wasn’t damaged, but El Rodeo’s water source, farther up the mountain near Los Lotes, was destroyed and the mayor does not want anyone living there because it is designated a high-risk area. If it rains heavily, the areas covered in pyroclastic flow—and all the trees and debris in its path—could come down onto the village or block the road. This is known as a lahar flow.

I went back to Los Lotes to look for my cousins, and I saw a lot of people burning—women and children on the ground on fire—and I had to run across the roof of one house to get away from the lava. It was like hot jelly everywhere. I saw one man buried in ash up to his waist, burned to death.

Edwin López
Survivor from El Rodeo

López says they are grateful for the Lincoln school, and particularly the director, Irma Yolanda Harrarte de Dabón, for helping them. “She’s a wonderful person,” he says.

De Dabón says she is not sure how long the families will be in the school, but she’s confident they will find the support they need for as long as necessary.

“Guatemala is stronger than any volcano,” she says.

The evacuation of La Trinidad

Back up on the southern slope of Fuego, Gilberto Camposeco refers to the recent eruption of the volcano as “the tragedy.” It seems like an understatement, but he would know the meaning of the term: His community is made up largely of Popti-speaking ethnic Maya families previously displaced by Guatemala’s civil war. They fled their home in the western highlands in the 1980s, hounded by a military that kidnapped, tortured, and murdered people from his village, Buena Vista, in the municipality of Santa Ana Huista.

There is a mural depicting the history of their community on the side of a building, next to a sign that says “Nuestra Historia” (Our History). Camposeco points to sections of it to explain what happened during those years. One of them shows helicopters over their village, fire leaping into the sky, armed soldiers, and dead bodies.

“They made us leave our homes; the army killed our animals and burned our homes,” he said. “We hid in the mountains, and the army looked for us. They would shoot at us like we were deer. Some of us survived, and we ran to Mexico, over the river. I was just a child.”

They lived in Mexico for 18 years and when repatriated in 1998, the government settled the survivors in this vulnerable area on the slopes of Fuego. They called this place “15 de Octubre La Trinidad,” after the date they arrived here. Camposeco and his neighbors built a thriving coffee cooperative from nothing.

But now, the future of the community is unclear.  “The army is coming here in two hours to evacuate us,” Camposeco says

“Everything we have built here is ending,” he says, looking stunned and exhausted. “We need to begin again.”

Threat of landslides

La Trinidad has always been in a risky place, so close to an active volcano. But since the recent eruption and resulting pyroclastic flow did not destroy La Trinidad, it is now officially designated a high-risk area. Heavy summer rains are likely to trigger lahar flows. The areas of unstable lahar volcanic material are just up the slope on two sides of La Trinidad.

On this clear day, steam rises off the northeast slope of Fuego, as well as from its caldera, whipping away in the wind. At this point, most of the 250 or so families that now call La Trinidad home are already elsewhere, including Camposeco’s wife and three children. But there are still about 24 families left in town, reluctant to leave their homes and possessions unguarded. They gather near a large ceiba tree near the village gate, a central gathering point across from the modest village chapel.

Otilia Garcia, the 44-year-old president of La Trinidad’s community development committee, says she and others have been in contact with the mayor of Escuintla, who is arranging a temporary place to stay for the remaining families.

“I think we need to leave here; it’s too risky,” she says. “We built a dignified life here, but we have children, and we need to move them to a safer place.”

Wish for better land

Camposeco goes back to his home one last time. He passes a large coffee processing facility—long and three stories tall, with a patio for drying the beans and a warehouse. The community has made significant investments in the cooperative facilities, he says. “We started from nothing. It was a lot of effort.”

He lives down around the corner in a two-bedroom concrete house with a grassy side yard bordered by a hedge with roses and hydrangeas blooming. A family dog and cat wander along the porch.

“Thank God no lives were lost here; that’s what I tell my family,” he says. “But we are going to fight—we’ll build another house, get other jobs. We need to live and we need to do whatever we have to do.” He struggles to think of how this would work. “We are fighting to find another farm, just like this one .... Maybe the government can give us better land. That’s our wish.”

Poverty and vulnerability

“After returning from exile in Mexico during the internal conflict, the people of La Trinidad were settled, sadly, in a very high-risk area,” says Ivan Aguilar, Oxfam’s humanitarian coordinator in Guatemala. “The government never should have settled them there.” It’s a reminder, he points out, that disasters disproportionately affect poor people, who more routinely live in vulnerable places.

Vulnerability—in Guatemala and many other places—“is intrinsically related to the condition of poverty and inequality,” Aguilar says.

Oxfam in Guatemala and its local partners are urging the government to compensate people from La Trinidad and find a safe place for them to live. Oxfam is also recommending the government provide a timely response to all survivors of the eruption, including compensation, resettlement in safe areas, and assistance in the dignified recovery of missing and deceased people.

Aguilar says Oxfam intends to stand with the people of La Trinidad. “We are committed to accompanying the men and women of La Trinidad as they work with the government to find a new, safe place to live and rebuild their lives.”

Leaving home—again

The town square slowly fills up with people and the few belongings they can carry. A man walks off the main road with a large plastic tub on his head; in it are several white ducks, looking around suspiciously as they are loaded into the back of a pickup truck headed to a nearby market. A few SUVs roll in off the main road, and journalists pile out and start talking to people, shooting photos and video. Eventually two large army trucks arrive and about a dozen soldiers with automatic rifles pile out, and stand around the street and inside the gate. Village elders, including Garcia, Gilberto Camposeco and his brother, Guadalupe, and several others, set up chairs next to the ceiba tree and hold a press conference. They say they are the last families. They don’t want to leave, but they understand they are in a dangerous area.

“We’re losing a lot, everything we’ve built over the last 19 years,” Guadelupe Camposeco says to the reporters, reminding them that the people of La Trinidad are farmers and would like to eventually be settled in a rural area so they can work in agriculture. “We have no other job skills.”

People start lining up to board the trucks, filing through the village gate and up a shaky wooden ladder into the back of the first truck. Young soldiers help, passing up bags, packages, young children, even a cage with a small bird, and a little black dog. Teenagers joke around. Gilberto Camposeco supervises the process, and after the second truck is loaded, he jumps in the back of a waiting pickup and follows the army trucks down the mountain, over the small Rio Cañas stream nearly filled with ash and rocks and uprooted trees. 

When they reach the town of Escuintla, the soldiers help people off the truck parked in the center of town, gently passing infants down to their mothers.  The people of La Trinidad file down the sidewalk, through a narrow doorway and a dark passage into a large, stiflingly hot gymnasium, where they fill up the stands on one side. Aid workers arrange mattresses and cots in a grid pattern on the basketball court, and work with Otilia Garcia, who has a list of the evacuees. They call out families by name. Those families file down onto the floor with their belongings, and set up camp on a mattress.

Gervasio López, 83, is waiting in the stands and walks out on the floor when his name is called. Someone shows him to a blue cot, and he sits down and manages a weak smile. He’s one of the survivors of the war, lived nearly two decades as a refugee in Mexico, rebuilt his life in La Trinidad, and now this. “Well, I’ll like it here because I need to be here,” he says with an air of resignation.

Gilberto Camposeco helps a few families carry their things into the gymnasium. His next task is to make a list of all the La Trinidad community members and their location so they can keep everyone organized. It’s a habit by now, to keep the community organized, and an essential means to get them to the next stage in their story.

“We started from nothing; it was a lot of effort,” he says of La Trinidad. “We have to build another community.”

“That’s it.”

Save lives now: Your gift to Oxfam’s Saving Lives 24/7 Fund will go directly toward our emergency work, present and future, so that when crises erupt, we're ready to spring into action.

Save lives now: Your gift to Oxfam’s Saving Lives 24/7 Fund will go directly toward our emergency work, present and future, so that when crises erupt, we're ready to spring into action.

Additional credits: In the opening photo, Wilmer Camposeco walks with his son Memo in the shadow of the Fuego Volcano in his village, La Trinidad. The Fuego volcano erupted on June 3rd, 2018 and sent a deadly pyroclastic flow (a mixture of extremely hot gas, ash, rocks, and lava) down its slopes. Photo by James Rodríguez/Panos for Oxfam America

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