|Mayan Towns to Be Declared Mass Graves
By Mark Stevensen
The Associated Press
Sunday 09 October 2005
Guatemala City - Dozens of foreign
tourists fled devastated lakeside Mayan towns on foot and by helicopter
Sunday as Guatemalan officials said they would abandon communities
buried by landslides and declare them mass graveyards.
Villagers who had swarmed over the vast
mudslides with shovels and axes digging for hundreds of missing gave up
the effort Sunday, five days after Hurricane Stan made landfall on the
Gulf of Mexico coast, bringing torrential rains before weakening to a
More than 640 people died and hundreds
more were missing across Central America and southern Mexico after a
week of rains. In hardest-hit Guatemala, 519 bodies had been recovered
and reburied. Some 338 were listed as missing.
"Panabaj will no longer exist,"
said Mayor Diego Esquina, referring to the Mayan lakeside hamlet in
Guatemala covered by a half-mile-wide mudflow as much as 15 to 20 feet
deep. "We are asking that it be declared a cemetery. We are tired.
We no longer know where to dig."
Many of the missing apparently will simply
be declared dead, and the ground they rest in declared hallowed ground.
About 160 bodies have been recovered in Panabaj and nearby towns, and
most have been buried in mass graves.
Vice President Eduardo Stein said steps
were being taken to give towns "legal permission to declare the
buried areas" as hallowed ground.
Attention turned to aiding thousands of
hungry or injured survivors as helicopters - including U.S. Blackhawks
and Chinooks - fanned out across Guatemala to evacuate the wounded and
bring supplies to more than 100 communities still cut off by mudslides
On Sunday, as aid workers reached the most
remote areas, they learned that a mudslide had buried a storm shelter in
the town of Tacana, about 12 miles from the Mexican border, where about
100 people had taken refuge from rains and flooding.
Thirty-seven bodies have been dug from the
shelter since the mudslide hit Wednesday, and 52 people were still
missing, said Jorge Hernandez of the country's civil defense agency.
Thousands of hungry and injured survivors
mobbed helicopters delivering the first food aid to communities that
have been cut off from the outside world for nearly a week.
Some communities along Guatemala's Pacific
coast have been cut off for almost a week, and when aid helicopters
finally arrived on Sunday, hungry and desperate villagers grabbed wildly
at bags of flour, rice and sugar.
As some foreign tourists worked shoulder
to shoulder with Mayans in traditional cotton blouses and broad sashes
to dig for missing victims, others hiked around mud-choked roads or
boarded government helicopters in the second day of evacuations from the
area around Lake Atitlan.
Helicopters went to the nearby town of San
Andres Semetabaj to fly out an estimated 20 Scandinavians trapped since
mudslides cut off the area several days ago. About 50 more tourists were
hiking out of the lakeside town of Panajachel.
"We got about 400 (tourists) out last
night, and were expecting more today," said Solomon Reyes of
Guatemala's Tourism Ministry.
In some areas the arrival of the
Guatemalan military only complicated matters. Villagers in Panabaj
refused to allow in the army because of memories of a 1990 massacre
there during the country's 36-year civil war.
But U.S. military helicopters from Joint
Task Force Bravo based at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras joined the
rescue efforts with a half-dozen Blackhawk helicopters and one Chinook
transport helicopter, running flights through dense clouds and heavy
"We're still in search-and-rescue
mode," said Army Maj. Bob Schmidt. "We're in the saving life
and limb thought process."
The U.S. craft delivered some medical
supplies and personnel and evacuated children needing medical care.
In El Salvador, authorities reported 71
deaths from the rains, after two people where swept away by flood waters
in San Salvador on Saturday.
The rest of the dead were scattered
throughout Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and southern Mexico.
Mexican President Vicente Fox visited
devastated Chiapas state Sunday as floodwaters began to recede.
"The important thing is that the
worst is over," Fox said. "Now comes the reconstruction."
Anger at Slow Aid to Guatemala
Sunday 09 October 2005
Panabaj, Guatemala - Aid trickled into a
Guatemalan village devastated by a mudslide that killed some 1,400
people, and Maya Indian residents complained on Sunday the government
was far too slow to react to the tragedy.
Peasants from neighboring villages brought
clothing for the victims, rowing canoes across Lake Atitlan to Panabaj.
The village was buried under a deadly slick of mud, rocks and trees that
slid down a volcano after rains from Hurricane Stan.
A federal deputy from western Guatemala
said 300 people had died in another mudslide in the town of Tacana, near
the Mexican border, but that could not be confirmed.
In Panabaj, Spanish firemen arrived to
look for bodies under a quagmire that is up to 40 feet deep in places
and Guatemalan soldiers brought water in a truck.
But government help was little and late,
local officials said. They were angry that President Oscar Berger had
not visited the village four days after one of Latin America's biggest
tragedies of recent years struck.
"I feel totally sad, morale is very
low. We want to see the president, we want to see him here," said
Diego Esquina, mayor of Santiago Atitlan municipality, which runs
Stan's rains triggered the mudslide as
Panabaj's residents slept early on Wednesday. Mud-covered roads
prevented rescuers from reaching the site for two days.
No senior government official went to the
village and the mayor said racism against the Mayas might be to blame.
"It's like they are giving a message
that it is because we are indigenous. That is the point. A lot of my
people are saying it is because we are indigenous," Esquina said.
Santiago Atitlan was a hot spot during
Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. Years of abuses by
soldiers helped leftist rebels recruit Indians in the town and tensions
peaked in 1990 when drunken soldiers killed 13 locals.
A supply of beans, rice and pasta sent by
the capital's city hall was handed out but peasants said the federal
government was negligent.
"The government didn't send anything
here. There is nothing," said Francisco Boron, 43, dressed in
traditional calf-length white pants and carrying a machete.
Rescuers with hand tools struggled to find
bodies in the brown grunge covering Panabaj and local officials said it
would likely be left as a mass grave.
Firefighters poked long poles into the mud
in search of victims but feared sinking into the quagmire themselves.
"It is very difficult. Most of the
people are where the mud is thickest and we haven't been able to work
there because of the danger," said firefighter Max Chiquito.
The fire department put the death toll at
around 1,400 villagers and Esquina said between 1,000 and 1,500 had
died. Only 76 bodies have been found.
The storm killed some 300 people elsewhere
in Guatemala and 103 others in the rest of Central America and southern
Julio Cesar Lopez, an opposition deputy
from the western department of Huehuetenango, told Reuters some 300
people died on Thursday when a mudslide hit the town of Tacana, in the
neighboring San Marcos region.
"I am in telephone contact with
Tacana. People were using two churches as shelters but the hill fell
down on top of them," said Lopez, of the Guatemalan Republican
Guatemalan newspaper reports said about
2,000 were missing in San Marcos and Defense Minister Carlos Aldana told
Reuters the armed forces were trying to reach the stricken area.
"San Marcos is the place where, from
today, we are giving most importance because it has not been dealt with
at all due to the weather conditions and the road access." he said.
Southern Mexico was reeling from floods
and the government said it would spend 20 billion pesos in emergency aid
for victims to reconstruct stricken states.
"We are going to support everyone to
recover their goods and rebuild their homes that were destroyed, to
compensate agricultural producers for the loss of crops, and in finance
plans for businesses," President Vicente Fox said.
Pope Benedict offered condolences for the
hurricane victims during his weekly blessing in St. Peter's Square.
"I ask the Lord for the eternal rest of the dead," he said.