Guatemala landslide victims had feared disaster
CHICHICASTE, Guatemala, April 25 (Reuters) - Fearful after warnings a landslide could wipe out their mountain hamlet, Maya Indian Benito Ardiano and his two brothers often visited the local mayor to beg to be moved to a safe place to plant crops and raise their families.
Three weeks after their last visit, two of the brothers along with 21 other members of the extended Ardiano family were buried under an avalanche of boulders and trees that crashed down on them on Wednesday after being loosened by heavy rain during Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
Survivors from the disaster in Guatemala's San Marcos department on the border with Mexico say authorities could have prevented the tragedy.
Guatemala's disaster prevention institute first warned in 1999 of the risk of a landslide in the area. Members of the Ardiano family said they were aware of the danger but had nowhere to go.
"Why didn't they help?" said survivor Benito Ardiano, 37, his eyes red with tears as emergency workers and soldiers, who hiked two hours to get to the landslide, hacked away with shovels and picks at houses crushed like matchboxes.
"The Ardiano family is dead," he said. He lost four brothers, nephews and an uncle.
Emergency services in the area said on Friday they had recovered 14 bodies. Nine others were still missing.
SCREAMS, THEN SILENCE
The hamlet of Chichicaste, which clings to the side of a steep mountain, was virgin forest until overpopulation forced local peasants to settle and farm it a decade ago. It was ripped in two in the landslide.
"The whole ground shook," said neighbor Petrona Rubio. "We heard screams, then we heard nothing."
On his last visit to local Mayor Julio Cesar Melendez, Benito Ardiano and his brothers said they would even settle for land near a local rubbish dump.
"They were looking for a farm to move to," Melendez said by telephone on Friday. "That is very costly."
He said authorities were now rushing to find land for 60 families still living in the area, who face even greater danger as Guatemala's rainy season draws near, but he denied the government was to blame for the deaths.
"We didn't act too late," he said. "They should have left."
Holding a vigil for some of the dead in a nearby hamlet shrouded in icy mist, Mayan women in traditional costumes filed past six flower-covered open coffins containing the broken bodies of Esteban Ardiano, his wife and four children.
"Why, why, why?" wailed a women in a white headdress, her head buried in her hands, and tears streaming down her face.
For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit www.trust.org/alertnet