A Family's Trek From Little to Nothing

Maria Burrion, left, cooks at the converted school where she and 141 other Guatemalan evacuees found shelter.
Maria Burrion, left, cooks at the converted school where she and 141 other Guatemalan evacuees found shelter. (By Krissah Williams -- The Washington Post)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2005

PATULUL, Guatemala -- They called the river "Old Mother," and it had given life to the town forever. But on Oct. 4, Maria Burrion recounted, the Madre Vieja River rose in a matter of minutes, overflowed its banks and came right through the walls of the one-bedroom tin shanty she shared with her five children and her elderly parents.

"It was something tremendous," she said, lifting tamales from a pot of boiling water in the courtyard of a boys' school, where her family now lives. "I looked out and saw the river coming toward us. The river surrounded the house."

The family huddled together inside as the brown waters rushed closer. They spent a first cold, dark night in the flooded house, eating canned beans and praying. The following evening, with water up to her knees, Burrion, 30, slung her year-old baby on her hip and scooped up her 6-year-old daughter in the other arm.

Then she, her parents and her three older children gripped each other tightly, forming a human chain, and waded through the water and muck to the nearest road, about half a mile away.

That's where municipal officials, out searching for survivors of the torrential rains and harrowing mudslides that had inundated the region in the wake of Hurricane Stan, found the family and drove them into the center of the town near Guatemala's Pacific coast.

There, the Rafael Arellano Cajas boys' school had been hurriedly converted into a shelter, its desks pushed aside and its aqua-painted classrooms turned into dormitories.

The family arrived wet and hungry, with only the clothes on their backs and the sandals on their feet, Burrion said. The school filled rapidly with others who had fled the floodwaters, 142 people in all, left homeless for the foreseeable future.

Smoke rose from the wood fire and burned Burrion's eyes last week as she stood over the bubbling pot of tamales in the schoolyard, where several women were making lunch for their families. She wiped away tears and continued cooking. She often found herself tearful since the river washed away her home and the little patch of rented land where her family grew corn and beans, she said.

"I don't have my own house," she said disconsolately. "I don't have anything."

Their story is tragic, but sadly typical for the estimated 200,000 people from across Guatemala who saw their homes and livelihoods vanish in an instant. They were among this country's most marginalized, the poorest of the poor. They had next to nothing before, but now they have nothing at all.

In some cases, entire communities were wiped out; the areas were declared mass graves. Authorities have confirmed 654 people dead but said more than 800 remained missing, buried under the rubble of their collapsed homes or in the mud.

In one sense, the Burrion family was lucky -- they survived.

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