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Memory of Mitch Mudslide Not Erased

October 26, 1999

ROLANDO RODRIGUEZ, Nicaragua (AP) _ A year ago, a family lay in a muddy cluster of trees.

The father was frozen as if he had been photographed swimming. The mother was entangled in the roots of a tree. The bloated body of the son embraced the bloated body of the dog.

Today all that remains is a field of weeds, a few metal crosses and a handwritten inscription: ``Domingo Montolla died here on Friday, Oct. 30, 1998.″ In the bottom corner, as if an afterthought: ``His wife and children died too.″

So did about 2,000 others _ drowned, crushed and scraped to death when Hurricane Mitch sent a cascade of mud hurtling through the villages nestled on the forested slopes of the Casitas volcano.

Of the 170 houses that stood in Rolando Rodriguez, only four remain. In neighboring El Porvenir, only one of 94 houses survived.

Overgrowth has done little to erase the memories of the survivors _ and they say Nicaragua’s government has done little to help them rebuild their lives.

Of the 1,500 families left homeless by the hurricane in Rolando Rodriguez, two-thirds are still living in tents. The only housing project the government has completed is a collection of 100 tiny mustard-yellow houses called Villa Dolores, named after the president’s daughter, but which appropriately translates as ``Town of Pain.″

Residents and local officials say President Arnoldo Aleman hurriedly built the houses to show off to President Clinton, who had planned to visit. When Clinton postponed his trip in the midst of impeachment proceedings, construction stopped _ and residents feel abandoned.

``The government promised us a lot. Aleman came on May 5 and promised to pay off our debts. He said he’d give us land to plant. All we have left are those words,″ said a resident, Berta Sandoval.

Sandoval, 33, lost 140 members of her extended family in the hurricane, including her mother and three brothers. ``The Sandoval family was the hardest hit,″ she said.

She also gained one: 12-year-old Rafael, who was orphaned by the mudslide. Rafael has joined her, her husband and her five children in their 65-square-foot house in Villa Dolores.

Sandoval said during one of Aleman’s visits, he promised a bicycle for Rafael. She is still waiting.

The neighborhood is an odd sight. There are sprinklers for the lawns _ unheard of in poor, rural Nicaragua _ but no pipes to supply them with water. There are roads, but after only a few months the thin layer of asphalt has already worn through. There are diamond-shaped holes in the walls to let in light, but since they also let in the rain most residents have plugged them with plastic bags.

The Sandoval family is actually one of the few mudslide victims who live in Villa Dolores. Of the 100 houses, only 35 are inhabited by families from the villages destroyed by Mitch; the others, residents and local leaders say, are Aleman supporters who were simply poor and needed a house.

``They said these houses were to be for people who lost relatives,″ Sandoval said. ``But it didn’t work out that way.″

Some residents conceded they weren’t from the affected area. ``I came to ask and, since I had nothing, they gave me the house,″ said Jesus Acosta Lozano, 62.

Before the hurricane, he worked as a farm hand and lived in a shack on the farm, a mile from the mudslide area. His sons still live and work there. Asked whether he lost anything in Mitch, he said, ``We didn’t have anything to lose.″

Felicita Zeledon, the opposition party mayor of the municipality that includes the mudslide area, said Aleman used the houses as a reward for supporters in the area. The mayor also accused the president of failing to direct aid to the mudslide area because she is a Sandinista, not a member of his Liberal Party.

``The president hasn’t shown any interest in helping us,″ she said. ``There are a lot of people who sent aid here that never arrived. If all that aid had gotten here, people wouldn’t still be in tents. The roads wouldn’t be in the condition they are.″

Aleman denied he built the Villa Dolores houses with Clinton’s trip in mind and said his government has been very responsive to the area.

``It’s false that we haven’t done anything,″ he said. ``We’ve advanced considerably in the construction of houses″ in the mudslide area.

He blamed some of the delays on opposition leaders in the affected areas, saying their accusations of corruption in the aid effort made donors more reluctant to give.

``Outside of the country people heard these things and it was a disincentive to aid,″ Aleman said in an interview. ``Because of nearsightedness, because of jealousy, because of a lack of nationalism, they hurt the country.″

Yamilet Bonilla, the government’s minister of social action, said all families that lost houses to Mitch could expect government housing _ somewhere _ within two years. She said some would have to move across the country to the Atlantic coast, a culturally distinct region where land is plentiful, but where few people from this region want to live.

``They might as well send us to the North Pole,″ Zeledon said. ``We are a people who have our own way of life. We have to look for solutions here.″

The biggest problem for most survivors _ whether they are living in tents or houses _ is that there is no work. The mudslide covered not only the villages, but also the farm land where they planted corn, beans, peanuts and bananas.

``The fields are full of sand,″ said Cristobal Mauricio Herrera, 56. ``Sincerely, there’s no work at all.″

He was cutting grass by a roadside with a machete, hard work in the blazing sun. After he completes 80 hours of work, aid organizations will give him rice, beans and cooking oil. All aid is given in exchange for work now _ aid agencies say that reduces dependency.

But many residents say the aid isn’t enough.

``Yes, they give help _ rice, sometimes beans, beans when they feel like it _ but we’re hungry,″ said Andres Rojas, 56, who lives in a plastic lean-to in a camp called El Tanque. ``We old people can take it, but the kids can’t.″

His problem is similar to that of many survivors. In Rolando Rodriguez, he had 14 acres of land. The new plot he has been given, and where the government says it will build him a house of cement-spackled Styrofoam, has less than an acre to plant.

Bonilla, the social action minister, said each family should get at least 3 1/2 acres. But she conceded the government couldn’t buy that much land in the mudslide area because prices were too high.

Bonilla plans to attend a small anniversary ceremony in Rolando Rodriguez for the victims of the hurricane. The ceremony will be held beside a mango tree that somehow survived where the village used to be.

Survivors are also building a memorial, and plan to finish by the end of the year. It lies in full view of the mountainside gash where now-dried mud runs down into the valley.

The memorial includes a mass grave where survivors buried the remains of about 60 people that washed up from the mud in heavy rains in May. It also includes a grove of trees, each one representing someone killed by Mitch.

There will be 2,000 trees.

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