Days Of Horror And Sorrow In Medillin Slum
Days Of Horror And Sorrow In Medillin Slum
Sep. 29, 1987
MEDELLIN, Colombia (AP) _ The happiest time of Luz Mary Castillo's life, she said Tuesday, was when she moved to a shack in the slum on the side of Sugarloaf Mountain, where she gave birth to her son.
And the most horror-filled day, she said, was Sunday, when she saw a wall of mud, two stories high, sweep over her 4-year-old boy as he stumbled and fell while glancing over his shoulder and trying to run.
Mrs. Castillo said that before the mudslide, the family rarely had enough money even for bread ''but we had hope that things would get better.''
Now even hope is gone, she said, wiping at a smudge of red clay on her tear-streaked face.
Since Sunday night, no survivors have been found. By Tuesday, the confirmed death count stood at 200 - nearly half of them children. The mayor of Medellin says the final toll may reach 500.
Sunday was an afternoon was like most other Sundays in the slum, called ''Villa Tina'' or ''The Sink.''
Radios blared country music - songs of hard luck and lost love. Children laughed and screamed with delight as they played in the dirt streets, already a sticky clay from three days of rain.
Along the upper extreme of the Sink, several dozen prostitutes were washing clothes and doing other household chores as their children played nearby.
Those shacks were the first to go when Sugarloaf gave way.
About 50 children were attending two first Holy Communion parties. All five children who were in the slum church's choir were killed at one party, and two died at the other.
Many of the men from the Sink had gone to bars on Sunday, as is their custom, to drink beer and aguardiente. Some of the men then went to watch a soccer match.
Many of them never saw their families again.
Rafael Bran had a more important mission - on Sunday, he went to his home town, Canas Gordas, to get a copy of his marriage certificate. He needed the certificate to apply for a baptism of his 2-month-old daughter, Liliana Maria, the youngest of three sisters.
He said he kissed his wife and children goodbye. It was forever, as it turned out.
''My God, what am I going to do?'' he said, his chest heaving as sobs racked his body. ''I'm praying for a miracle from God.''
Other men who were listening, survivors, rescuers and the curious who were drawn like buzzards to tragedy, fell silent as men will often do when they see a man's spirit broken and they feel understanding and tenderness but are afraid to show it.
A few yards away, Ramiro Castro stood by as rescuers dug into the mud. Somewhere under the mud was his house, with the bodies of his father, four brothers, four sisters and four nephews.
A few minutes before the slide, Castro went down the hill to take the place of his mother and brother, who were caring for the family's small store. The mother and brother survived.
''I heard this big explosion. It sounded like a hundred locomotives,'' Castro said. ''I thought it was one of those fireworks factories that people sometimes have in their houses. I turned around and saw the mountain coming down. It was over in just a few seconds. Everything was gone. Covered up. People. Children. Houses.''
Most of the people in the Sink were unemployed. The official unemployment rate in Medellin, a northwestern Colombian industrial city of 2 million people, is 12 percent. But Hernan Mira, a professor at the University of Antioquia in Medellin, said experts agree the actual rate is at least twice that.
Survivors said many residents of the Sink would go into the city to beg or to scratch through garbage cans, looking for food for their children.
In Medellin, the slums have no paved streets, no running water and no sewers. Residents climb utility poles on the edges of the slums and connect wires to steal electricity.
Most slum dwellers are squatters who throw up shacks of adobe, old tires, tar paper, scrap lumber and other junk. It takes some people years to get enough money to put together even a shack and a few pieces of broken furniture. If they are lucky, they have a radio or a television.
Only a few people in the Sink have tiny refrigerators, survivors said: there's no need to keep anything cold - even children don't get milk and only rarely eat meat.
As the sun set over the Andes Monday night, a young couple who a rescue worker said had lost their three children, their home and all their belongings sat atop the mud and stared down into Medellin.
Lights were beginning to twinkle in the city where there are discos, restaurants, hotels, casinos and skyscrapers.
The woman wept softly, and the man tried to soothe her, stroking her hair. They embraced for a long time and held on to all they had left in the world.