After most natural disasters, people are eventually able to go back home, clean up the material damage and rebuild their lives. The losses of loved ones, valued possessions and means of earning a living take longer to heal, but being home is always a good beginning.
The people displaced by the June 3 eruption of the Fuego volcano in south-central Guatemala hope to be able to go home soon, but for many when — and even if — that will happen is far from certain. Many towns and villages are still considered uninhabitable. Volcanic ash, exacerbated by heavy rains, continues to be a health hazard and toxic material still flows intermittently down the volcano’s southeastern slope. Conditions in some places have only recently become tolerable enough for recovery efforts.
According to Reuters, the official Guatemalan disaster agency, CONRED, said on Sunday that search efforts have been permanently suspended in the most heavily impacted areas of the Escuintla municipality, which are still considered at high risk.
Meanwhile, more than 4,000 people were being housed in shelters or staying with family members or friends, according to an estimate by the Guatemalan health ministry. That number included about 150 members of the Unbound community.
Oscar Tuch, Unbound’s communications liaison in Guatemala, traveled recently with Unbound staff from the Hermano Pedro program, as they brought relief materials to evacuation shelters. In the town of Palin Escuintla, he gained an appreciation of what an ordeal life in the shelters has been for the families and felt their gratitude for Unbound’s care.
“During the visit, we were able to make contact with at least 11 of the sponsored families,” Tuch said. “In spite of the cries and the desolation, the families, upon seeing and feeling the presence of the [Unbound] social workers, felt very moved, as shown by the smiles on their faces. The social workers that accompanied my visit had to make sure that every member of the family was accounted for.”
But “accounted for” did not necessarily mean on site. Despite the dangers, several fathers from the nearby community of Don Pancho, which was evacuated, had returned to the village to guard their homes from looters. With restless and confused children to care for and the men away, the women were feeling the stress.
“The mothers know that their husbands are exposed to the risks, but they also know the effort it has cost them to obtain the little they own,” Tuch said. “That’s why they don’t want to abandon their few belongings. They miss their chickens, their ducks and their crops. They miss their roots.”
It’s hard to overestimate how important those roots are for the Guatemalan people. Many are born, live and die no more than a stone’s throw from where their parents and grandparents did. They work the same land — sometimes with the same tools — as forebears generations removed.
Being removed from one’s home is unsettling for Guatemalans in ways others might not understand. In a 2017 interview, former sponsored child and current intern at Unbound’s headquarters in Kansas City, Selica Piloy, spoke about the significance of community identity for the Mayan people.
“Each group is distinguished according to their language, their cloth [woven fabrics used to make clothes] and traditions,” she said. “You can tell what town someone is from simply by what they wear. Different communities have different designs on their clothing, from birds and flowers to fish and trees.”
Living in shelters, wearing unfamiliar clothing, is just another reminder to the displaced of how little control they now have over their lives. While they pray that they may soon return to the familiarity of home, for some that time may never come.
The Guatemalan Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure and Housing declared areas severely impacted by the eruption as uninhabitable, Tuch said.
“Without giving details, they indicated that they will be looking for new land to locate the survivors of the tragedy,” he said. “This is because it is not appropriate to rebuild in the same place.”
How many Unbound families will ultimately be relocated remains to be seen. What we do know is that the Unbound community will work to surround them with moral, spiritual and material support as they begin to rebuild their lives.
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