Bolivian Red Cross take aid to remote landslide village

News and Press Release
Originally published
by Ana Rosa Boyan, Bolivian Red Cross, in La Paz
On 31 March, news reached La Paz that the mining village of Chima, some 280 km north of the Bolivian capital, had been submerged in a landslide and that more than 400 people were missing.

Getting aid to the devastated village would involve a long and treacherous journey, because Chima is only accessible by road. Even then it is not uncommon to see the heavy goods trucks that transport fruits and wood to La Paz stuck for days on these muddy roads.

In the first hours after the news broke, there was a lot of confusion. No one knew for sure the extent of the damage, nor the number of dead and injured.

The Bolivian Red Cross, supported by the International Federation and the Spanish Red Cross, immediately decided to obtain the exact figures. Its National Relief Department mobilized a volunteer brigade to deliver food and blankets for about 400 families, based on the initial estimation.

One day after the disaster, the Red Cross volunteers left for Chima in a heavy goods truck. It was the start of a dangerous three-day odyssey, during which they faced risks to their lives and their vital cargo.

"Near the village of Caranavi, we nearly fell over a 100-metre cliff, when we had to move over to allow another vehicle to pass. Our front tyres were at the very edge of the cliff and we could see nothing because of darkness," said César Medrano, a volunteer from La Paz branch, who was on the aid truck.

He and his colleagues had to ask a following Red Cross vehicle for help, and it took them hours to get the truck back on the road. "Then we had a delay of three days because the difficult terrain," said Rubén Gonzáles, CRB National Relief Director. "We even had to leave everything we were transporting in the village of Guanay since the truck could not get into Chima."

This region is rich in gold deposits, but Chima is a desperately poor town. According to volunteers Luz Lilia Schwartzberg and Lucrecia Cruz, who accompanied the humanitarian convoy, many of those missing were barranquilleros, workers from other parts of Bolivia. In many cases, nothing is known about their origins or even their names.

Official figures reveal that 24 people died in the landslide. But a further 200 are estimated to have been buried under the mud.

Long-time Bolivian Red Cross volunteer Ronald Clavijo, remembers one of the most dramatic testimonies from a survivor, who told him: "I was sitting on the riverbank and suddenly I heard a loud noise. I saw how people had started to run and the soil was falling down. People were swallowed, houses were buried. Other barranquilleros were carried away by the stream and they were then found downstream in Guanay village."

The survivor assumed that many people were buried, especially since the landslide hit a crowded shopping street.

"I was at the river when the stones started to fall," said a 12-year-old girl during a census carried out by the CRB volunteers. "Curiosity made me climb quickly up the mountain with other children, so I could see how it was collapsing."

"I saw big clods of land on the houses and people running and yelling. My house was totally destroyed. My father and mother were working at the mine, so they were safe, but my grandmother died because she was inside the house," the girl said.

The latest information indicated that at least 31 children lost at least one parent in the disaster. A children's home, Aldea Infantil SOS, is trying to adopt those children orphaned in the tragedy.

"This was caused by men," one of Chima's oldest residents told the Red Cross workers. "This is the second time this has happened. It's because people are still dynamiting the mountain."

"We have lost our belongings, our houses and our families," a representative of the Chima neighbourhood committee said. "We are really grateful to the Red Cross because they were the first ones to help us."

The distribution of relief supplies was carried out jointly with the Departmental Prefect of La Paz, Chima township and other organizations. Humanitarian aid from the Bolivian Red Cross benefited 200 families, who received two blankets and a 38kg package containing sugar, salt, spaghetti, oil and rice.