Mudslides Devastate Mayans in Guatemala

A Sutujil Indian woman leans away from the wind created by a U.S. helicopter as it delivers aid to the town of Panabaj, in central Guatemala.
A Sutujil Indian woman leans away from the wind created by a U.S. helicopter as it delivers aid to the town of Panabaj, in central Guatemala. (By Rodrigo Abd -- Associated Press)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

PANABAJ, Guatemala, Oct. 10 -- With a machete in one hand, Candelaria Ramirez Tiney, 67, chopped at the mass of dried mud surrounding her small adobe house Monday, trying to salvage whatever she could before abandoning the village where two of her eight children had been swallowed up and lost five days before.

With the other hand, Ramirez held a cloth to her worn, toothless face to block out the smell of rotting flesh. Her traditional Mayan cotton skirt and dress, hand-woven of bright blue, purple and pink threads, was caked with mud.

Nearby, two black vultures waited on a field in this Mayan village where as many as 500 people, including entire families, are believed to have been buried alive early Wednesday when heavy rains following Hurricane Stan let loose an avalanche of mud, rocks and trees.

"Nothing like this has ever happened here before," said Ramirez, shaking her head and speaking in the Tzutujil language of her people. "I'm . . . too afraid to live here again."

In the places where her neighbors' homes had stood, there was nothing left, just a flat plain of mud covered by rocks, fallen trees and other debris that had tumbled down from three volcanoes surrounding the village. The survivors had already abandoned the search for their loved ones, and the area had been declared a mass grave.

The destruction of Panabaj, a traditional community of about 3,000 subsistence farmers in central Guatemala, is only the most recent tragedy inflicted on the village and other communities of indigenous Mayan people.

A cemetery called "The Park of Peace," where gravestones are now covered in mud, was built in this village years ago to commemorate the deaths of 13 Mayan inhabitants in an army massacre in 1990, during the country's 36-year civil war.

The war claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, the vast majority of them Mayan civilians. The conflict left thousands of widows and orphans traumatized, according to Anita Isaacs, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College who visited Panabaj repeatedly to research the civil war destruction.

Now, the mudslides have left more families in tatters. Diego Chichom Ramirez, an official at the mayor's office in Santiago Atitlan, a nearby town, said the authorities have no idea what to do with the children who were orphaned after the mud swallowed their mothers and fathers.

In other cases, parents survived and their children perished. Candelaria Ramirez said the villagers were warned to leave before the torrents came, and she fled with many others to Santiago Atitlan, several miles away, and took refuge in a church. But her two grown daughters did not want to leave their homes. At 4 a.m. last Wednesday, she said, she could hear the roar as the giant wall of mud began to plunge downward on Panabaj.

For now, the survivors are living in shelters, churches and schools in Santiago Atitlan. Food is arriving regularly by boats from the other side of Lake Atitlan, and medicine has been flown in by helicopter.

But the roads leading to the highland village are still covered by as much as 10 feet of mud in some places. In Panabaj, rows of adobe bricks that were used in houses are strewn about like Legos in the mud. Metal pipes that held homes together are bent like straws. Ditches 10 feet deep have been carved where the earth was once level.

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