A blanket of hardened earth stretches over what used to be the center of Armero, so deep in spots it gives no hint of the church, the banks, the stores, the homes, the bodies buried below.
The vast, gray expanse is broken only by crosses, planted like land buoys to mark corpses submerged in a sea of dirt. The crosses bear different names but always the same date -- Nov. 13, 1985, the day a river of mud swallowed this once-picturesque Colombian town.
Four months later, local authorities are still burying the dead, often in mass graves. Now that a roadway has been scraped by bulldozers, leaving large drifts of soil in their wake, people have come to gawk at, others to scavenge among, the debris around the town's perimeter.
But as Colombia moves, at times disjointedly, to pick up the pieces, this moonlike landscape remains more a testament to the power of nature to destroy than to the ability of governments to repair.
More than 22,000 persons died, most of them in Armero, in mud avalanches triggered by an explosion of the snow-covered Nevado del Ruiz volcano. About 25,000 others have been left homeless and jobless. Massive amounts of aid arrived in a show of international sympathy. U.S. officials in Bogota estimated that between $10 million and $12 million came from the United States.
Thanks to some of the donations, Colombia's Red Cross and Civil Defense units now are well equipped to handle future mud flows. They now have the generators, water pumps, cutting tools and additional ambulances that were in desperately short supply last November.
Similarly, Colombian scientists are better prepared to monitor the menacing volcano. Under the guidance of experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, which provided more than $2 million in equipment, a sophisticated warning system has been installed on the still-active volcano. Sensors and laser-powered reflectors relay readings to an observatory headquartered on the 11th floor of a bank building in Manizales, about 50 miles west of here.
"Our scientists tell me that no other volcano in this hemisphere is being studied as thoroughly and profoundly as this one," said James Smith, the U.S. Agency for International Development representative in Bogota.
But as prepared as Colombia appears to be to face future disasters, it is far from recovering from the last one. Thousands of victims remain in tent camps and other temporary shelters scattered around the country, surviving on free meals and welfare payments of about $25 a month. The refugees are restive and despairing about the long wait for new permanent housing promised by the government. Numerous instances of failures in coordination and communication between social agencies have been reported in the Colombian press.
Much of the aid sent from abroad has yet to reach its destination. Crates of clothing, tools, canned goods and other items have been piling up in customs warehouses, as organizations in Bogota haggle over who will pay the requisite storage and transportation costs.
At a refugee camp in Guayabal, five miles north of Armero, Oscar Vasquez, 36, a construction worker who lost his wife and five children in the avalanche, said the most difficult part now is having no sense of permanency. "We're more interested in getting parcels of land than money," he said, standing outside a row of square concrete rooms with corrugated metal roofs hurriedly constructed as emergency shelters. "The important thing is to have a permanent place to live."
As Vasquez spoke, about 150 other Armero victims were demonstrating 20 miles away in Lerida. They had set up two large tents on private property in the town's center, demanding an answer from President Belisario Betancur to a letter sent by a national council of refugee representatives.
The letter, dated Feb. 17, complained of poor conditions in the camps and asked the government to designate areas for permanent settlement. Police struck the tents and dispersed the crowd on March 6.
A psychologist working with some of the victims at the Guayabal camp said she had seen more signs of aggression among the refugees in recent weeks. "The shock of what happened at first made them very passive," explained Doris Amado. "But now they are becoming demanding, resentful of the outside world."
While some refugees have accepted the disaster, many have not, refusing to make the short trip back to Armero to confront the ruins. Parents in some surviving families have forbidden their children to mention the tragedy. Many live with nightmares of that horrendous night. "When it rains, the people remember that night," said Amado. "The same when the lights go out."
The doctor stressed the urgency of finding jobs for these people and recreating a sense of community. Some are beginning to lose their desire to work, she said.
This need for jobs was echoed by Army Maj. Rafael Ruiz Navarro, appointed mayor of Armero after the avalanche, making him the official political representative of the survivors. He is headquartered in Guayabal. "Tell the American people that more than money, what we need is machinery, tools and other equipment to put these people to work," he said in an interview. The only new enterprise in Guayabal so far has been a brick factory, donated by Colombian Jews.
Among the survivors, there is lingering bitterness toward government authorities. Weeks before the volcano erupted, scientists had prepared a volcano risk map predicting an explosion of Nevado del Ruiz and resultant mud flows, although it did not say when this would occur. Relief agencies were aware of the map, as were some national and regional government officials.
Victor Ricardo, the president's chief of staff, has said that the people of Armero were told of the danger by Civil Defense workers but ignored the threat, since the volcano had not erupted for 400 years.
When it did explode, however, late at night on Nov. 13, government officials were slow to call for an evacuation of the area, according to accounts by survivors.
A tall sign in what used to be Armero's central park lists seven members of a family named Vargas who vanished in the avalanche, then adds: "The disinterest of government officials and the fury of nature have destroyed our families."
In an interview March 7, Betancur defended the government's performance. "No one is prepared for such a tragedy, not even the most developed country," he said. "Within the capacities of our country, we were prepared and took all the possible precautions."
To coordinate the reconstruction effort, Betancur created an organization called Resurgir, which means "to arise again." Managed by private entrepreneurs, it has drafted an ambitious redevelopment plan for the Armero area, once a thriving agricultural region growing cotton, coffee, rice, sorghum, soya and peanuts and raising cattle. "By the time we're through, the region will rise to a level higher than it knew before," said Resurgir's president, Pedro Gomez, one of Colombia's most successful developers.
Gomez said that the role Armero played as an economic motor for the region would be transferred to nearby Lerida, on higher ground, for which there are plans to build new housing and an industrial park.
To revive economic activity, the government has offered low-interest loans, agricultural credits and exemption from import duties on equipment. Gomez spoke enthusiastically of bringing modern farming methods to the area, of redistributing large vacated estates and of experimenting with cooperative farms -- in short, remaking the Armero area into a pilot project for rural development.
No ground has been broken yet. Gomez cited the need for time-consuming economic, social and geological studies before settling on Lerida as the main reconstruction site. Rebuilding is due to start soon.
While acknowledging that conditions in some refugee camps are "very poor" and accusing the bureaucracy of slowness, Gomez said things have improved.
The price tag on the reconstruction plan, which involves new investments in 22 towns, is $280 million, to be financed largely by raising taxes on petroleum products. Meanwhile, the volcano keeps rumbling, showing cracks and bellows-like movements on the surface, suggesting that another eruption may be building. Red evacuation arrows painted on walls in Guayabal, Mariquita and other towns at the mountain's base are a constant reminder to nervous residents of the persistent danger and of which way to run next time.