People Shouldn't Live Like This
by Major Cedric Hills
I’LL never forget my first emergency response. It was 11 years ago, in a small village in Bosnia. Each afternoon, in the middle of the town, surrounded by burnt-out buildings so severely damaged that not even the shell remained, I found myself sitting with children who gathered by The Salvation Army’s mobile canteen.
Despite the horrors around us we laughed as they tried to teach me a few words of Serbo-Croat and I used a primitive sign language to teach them English. Retreating to my accommodation each evening I would reflect on the life these children were coming to terms with. A life turned upside down through no fault of their own. With huge sadness in my heart I would think of those smiling children and say to myself: ‘People shouldn’t live like this – it’s just not right.’
|The clear-up operation is likely to take some time|
|Belongings lie in the wreckage of people’s homes|
|Major Alex Nesterenko looks at rows of collapsed homes in El Olivo|
|People have joined together to provide hot food|
|Juana (left) speaks to Major Alex Nesterenko as she joins other women to prepare food for her neighbours|
|The severely-damaged church tower in El Olivo|
|Captain Rodrigo Viduarra with volunteer helpers in a communal kitchen|
|Earthquake survivor Annelle and friend in a makeshift shelter|
I’ve seen many scenes of disaster in the intervening years, but the memory of that life-changing injustice came afresh to me recently when visiting the earthquake-hit towns of Peru.
On the evening of 15 August 2007 an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale occurred 160 kilometres off the coast of Peru. Its impact was felt as far away as the capital city, Lima, but it was the coastal town of Pisco which felt the force of its destructive power. An estimated 85 per cent of properties there were damaged or destroyed.
Salvation Army relief teams were on site that same evening, supplying items such as food, blankets, medicine and clothing. Tents were provided and hundreds of families found refuge, accommodated in camps supported by The Salvation Army.
Two weeks after the earthquake I travelled to Pisco to see how the relief effort was progressing and how families were coming to terms with such a devastating, life-changing event.
I’d seen the activity in the town itself during an earlier visit so felt it important to investigate how the outlying areas were faring. Accompanied by Major Alex Nesterenko, divisional commander and leader of The Salvation Army’s work in Peru, I headed to the town of Ica to assess the surrounding small villages.
Arriving in El Olivo, I couldn’t miss the focal point – the Roman Catholic church. It once stood proudly in the middle of the village but its dangerously cracked tower was about all that remained. Visible to the whole village, the tower now stood as a symbol of the destruction. As I spoke to the people of the village many of the 365 residents, rather than drawing attention to the rubble that once comprised their homes, pointed at the tower and said: ‘Have you seen what the earthquake did to our church?’ The remains of the tower, like the rest of this community, will need to be pulled down and the site cleared before rebuilding can start.
Captain Carlos Aguilar, the Salvation Army team leader for Ica, showed me around. He and his team had distributed food parcels, blankets and clothes. The destruction was plain to see – in fact it was the single house still standing amidst the total destruction which drew my attention. Even this lone house suffered structural damage which meant it would also need to be torn down as soon as possible.
While I was looking at this once-lovely home, Luvi came out to speak with me. She was born in this house – her family home – 40 years ago. As we talked, her 11-year-old daughter Annelle came and stood by her side.
When the earthquake happened Annelle and her mother were standing at the bottom of the stairs. Annelle ran for the door and escaped the building. By the time Luvi got to the door the house had started to buckle and crack. The twisting of the brickwork meant the door would not open and Luvi could not escape. Fortunately, as her home did not collapse, she survived.
It was a situation I could empathise with. Back in 1999 I took part in The Salvation Army’s emergency response following a terrible earthquake in Turkey. While I was there the region was hit by a series of large aftershocks. On one occasion the relief team members were being hosted by civic leaders in a lakeside restaurant. As we joined in the meal there was a terrible jolt and a severe aftershock.
We tried to escape the building but found the large sliding doors jammed shut as the building flexed and twisted. It couldn’t have been more than a few moments before we managed to find a door which could be forced open but it felt like an eternity! We escaped to safety, but I’ll never forget the scene as I stood outside with my heart pounding, looking at the rising plumes of dust at points around the lake where buildings had collapsed.
All those thoughts came flooding back as I stood inside Luvi’s damaged home. I pictured Annelle escaping to safety then waiting desperately for her mother to join her. As I stood in the street outside her home I tried to imagine how this young girl must have felt as she had looked around for help only to witness every home in her neighbourhood collapsing.
Desperate for help, how must she have felt to see neighbours scrambling for safety or screaming for helpers to rescue trapped relatives?
The prayer came back to me with the same intensity that I uttered it 11 years ago: ‘People shouldn’t live like this – it’s just not right’.
Disasters typically hit poorer people most severely. Properties in wealthier communities are often better designed or more strongly constructed. Like so many of the small communities of this area the homes in Olivia were adobe construction – rough brick, fragile construction.
Along with their other family members, Luvi and Annelle now live in a temporary shelter created on vacant land next to the house. Annelle showed me around her former home, despite her fear of another quake. They are one of the few families to be able to salvage some of their belongings but the most precious, their home, will soon be gone.
Walking down the main street I saw an elderly but fit man pushing a wheelbarrow of rubble. He was trying to clear away the remains of his home. Clemente Franco, aged 64, had lived there for 55 years. His eight-member family has now taken refuge on waste land, living under shelter materials they have been given. Looking into the rubble that used to be his home, I saw that everything was smashed, nothing salvageable. It struck me as surprising that he was smiling as we talked together. When I commented about this he replied: ‘What else can I do? I can’t cry, I must work.’ The smile left his face as he added: ‘But I’m sad to see my village destroyed.’
Patricia, who I learned was the village leader, was collecting water from a standpipe – water was reconnected four days before my visit. She told me that the village is very warm (something I had already noticed) so tents are not really appropriate because they are too hot to live in. Some organisations have given matting for families to create temporary shelters, but they need more – at least five sheets per family. With the increased demand for materials many prices have risen. The price of matting has more than doubled.
We visited a communal kitchen where a small group of women was cooking for 13 families (38 people). I met Juana, a young woman aged about 25, and her small daughter. They took me a few metres from the kitchen and stood on the spot where their home once stood – the place where Juana’s mother died in the quake just two weeks earlier.
The busyness of the people was clear. Women in communal kitchens prepared food for their families and neighbours. Men worked side by side to move rubble with shovels and bare hands. Village leader Patricia told me she thought the clean-up and removal of rubble was the biggest challenge currently facing her community. Their lack of outside assistance contrasted starkly with the multitude of helpers in the municipal centre at Pisco. Yet I was deeply touched by the positive outlook shown by those I met in this small village.
The following day, after travelling back through Pisco and towards the town of Chincha, I headed to the outskirts of the town to the community of Upis. There, 220 families were coming to terms with the sudden loss of their homes. The Salvation Army relief team members met me and welcomed me warmly. Since day one of the earthquake the team’s base had been two store-tents in the middle of the community. From these tents daily rations of rice, beans, oil, spaghetti, lentils and milk are distributed. The families pool their rations, using what little money they can generate to add meat from which to conjure up daily meals cooked in three communal kitchens.
The team leader, Captain Rodrigo Viduarra, showed me around, introducing me to the women who are looking after the kitchens and making sure that no one in need goes without a hot meal. When I asked how long the captain was staying his reply was simple: ‘Until we finish the work.’
I asked the divisional commander where the captain and his team were staying. ‘I offered funds to put them up in a hotel,’ replied Major Alex, ‘but they refused the money. They said that while the people were suffering they must be with them – they have made some room in the two tents between the rations and they sleep there.’
As I drove away from Pisco my heart was touched by the warmth of the families I had met, by their optimism and positive outlook. I gave thanks to God for their demonstration of community spirit. I marvelled at the selfless response of Salvation Army team members who were literally embedded into the community, standing alongside and working to make life better. Finally, I gave thanks for the generous response to the Army’s international earthquake appeal which means we will be able to help some of these families rebuild their properties and replace them with homes that are stronger and better equipped to survive if the forces of nature treat them savagely in the future.
Major Cedric Hills is The Salvation Army’s International Emergency Services Coordinator