Nine months after Hurricane Mitch raged across Central America and prompted an unprecedented outpouring of aid, most survivors at Casitas volcano here still camp in plastic huts within sight of the mud scar that covers what was once two large villages and hundreds of acres of farmland.
Because of political feuds, government bureaucracy and restrictions imposed by donors, most of Nicaragua's neediest victims have received little of the hundreds of millions of dollars in promised assistance and could remain without permanent housing and livelihoods for years, according to community leaders, government officials and aid workers.
The few families that the government has provided with new homes find themselves unable to earn livings. Their lifelong occupation, farming, has been taken away from them because each house has only a few square feet of yard space. One of the largest international donors, the United States, has mandated that none of its approximately $100 million in funding be used for the victims' most pressing needs -- housing and land for displaced farmers -- because of Nicaragua's complicated and corrupt land ownership practices.
"The houses are very nice," said Alejandra Cortidano, 31, who received one of the 100 the government has built so far for the 17,000 people displaced in the Casitas volcano area. "But we're farmers, and there is no land."
Although Cortidano and her neighbors moved into the community three months ago, each of the village's yellow houses still sports a baby blue porcelain toilet perched on a concrete slab without connection to plumbing.
The loss of homes and livelihoods has exacerbated the psychological condition of a population traumatized by the wall of mud that roared down the volcano's flank after five days of pounding rain last October. When spring rains began in April, children were afraid to leave their plastic huts and were inconsolable in their fear. Many adults also remain too distraught to talk about their experiences with the occasional social worker or psychologist who visits the refugee camps.
"The entire universe of their lives has been destroyed," said Benjamin Cortes, who heads the Managua-based Interchurch Center for Theological and Social Studies, an organization of evangelical churches that has diverted most of its development assistance in Nicaragua to hurricane victims.
In recent weeks, rain has shifted the mud to expose bones of the dead. The hardiest survivors collect the skeletal remains of unnamed neighbors who were among the 2,000 people buried by the mud. So far, they have interred 50 plastic bags of bones and skulls in a simple communal grave near two mango trees that used to shade a church in a town that no longer exists.
"It's difficult to even look at this place," said Alonso Rodrigo Hurtado, 36, who lost three children in the mudslide, which caused the greatest number of deaths in any one location struck by the hurricane. "Nobody wants to return here because of the horror of what happened."
The horror of what happened here, 50 miles northwest of the capital, Managua, provoked international expressions of concern and promises of help. However, after a surge of emergency assistance from around the world and pledges of more, reconstruction money has been slow to arrive, said a U.S. official involved in the effort.
In fact, nine months after the United States promised to assist Central American nations hit by Mitch and four months after President Clinton visited the boulder-strewn skirts of Casitas volcano, the first non-emergency funds were approved for spending two weeks ago. Nicaraguan authorities said their most recent figures indicate the country has received $167 million of the $1.8 billion it was promised in international assistance -- less than one of every 10 dollars pledged.
That is not to say no progress has been made since the storm, which damaged 70 percent of Nicaragua's highways, and infrastructure in nearly half of its municipalities. The most visible project is the Pan-American Highway, Central America's transportation artery, which was rendered impassable in Nicaragua when small streams grew into raging rivers that swept away bridges and the road. Construction crews work seven days a week repairing the highway and bridges.
But President Arnoldo Aleman, in an interview, characterized rebuilding of homes and other infrastructure -- especially in the devastated Casitas volcano area -- as "a slow, difficult process." He added that a big part of the problem is the concern of international donors about "corruption and a lack of transparency," or accountability.
Nicaragua has never rebuilt the heart of Managua, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972, in part because the government of Anastasio Somoza allegedly absconded with international reconstruction aid.
No issue has raised more anxiety with aid donors than providing land and housing, especially for the people displaced by the wall of mud that began its deadly slide when the volcano's crown collapsed. In addition to fear of another mudslide, the sides of the volcano are now considered too unstable to sustain farming or villages.
As a result, the victims of the worst catastrophe unleashed by Hurricane Mitch are living in lean-tos built of plastic and tin in a half-dozen rain-soaked fields near the volcano's base. At the largest encampment, dubbed "the tank" after an aging, rusted water tank that marks the turnoff from the main highway, more than 300 makeshift shacks are scattered across the landscape.
With no place to go in the weeks after the hurricane -- their homes buried, their wheat and sugar cane fields flattened, their neighbors swallowed by the mud -- many refugees stole into the fields two nights after Christmas and set up camp, much to the dismay of the members of farm cooperatives who already occupied the land. Like much property in Nicaragua, the land had been confiscated by the Sandinista government after its 1979 revolution and turned over to farm cooperatives.
After the Sandinistas lost power in 1990, original landholders -- such as the U.S. citizen of Nicaraguan descent who formerly owned the lands of the tank encampment -- began trying to reclaim their properties. In this case, however, the original landowner reportedly owes $2.5 million in back taxes and other debts, further compounding the dispute. After months of fighting each other, the cooperative farmers and the refugees decided to join forces to try to persuade the government to buy the land from the original owner and give members of both groups titles. The national government has said it does not have money to pay for the land and has refused to take action.
Meanwhile, many refugees have planted bananas, corn and other crops around their plastic huts. "We'd like to stay here so we can live in houses with dignity," said Arcadio Gunguia, 42, a refugee community leader. "It's the least we deserve."
Predictably, the Sandinista mayor of Posoltega has accused the right-wing president, a member of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, of neglecting the region because of political differences. Aleman, just as predictably, accused the local governments of failing to respond adequately.
The entrance to Posoltega, the municipality that includes the towns and villages at the foot of Casitas volcano, is plastered with dozens of competing signboards in which "the most excellent President Arnoldo Aleman" is credited with a new business project or school construction, followed by signs posted by the mayor announcing her contributions. Few of either government's projects have been started, much less completed.