October 11, 2005

Guatemala’s Maya Indians hit hard in new tragedy

By Catherine Bremer

TACANA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Villagers mourned their dead
on Tuesday and sprinkled lime over the mass graves of hundreds
buried in huge mudslides, putting a seal on the latest tragedy
to hit Guatemala's Maya Indians.

At the edge of this town in the high mountains of western
Guatemala, rescuers in the hamlet of Cua called off attempts to
recover more victims from the mudslide that swallowed two
churches, a school and a communal dining room on Thursday.

"We pulled the dead out without any help. One came out
without a head. It was horrible. There were a lot of children,"
said Mario Ortiz, a 34-year-old father of five who said he now
has trouble sleeping.

Forty-eight bodies were recovered but 32 others who
disappeared in the muck will now stay there forever.

"They are very deep. There is too much mud and they are way
inside there, they are too deeply buried," said rescue worker
Oscar Mendez.

It was a similar story in other villages hit by mudslides
across Guatemala. The official death toll of rains from
Hurricane Stan sits at 652 and 398 disappeared but emergency
workers say the real number is in the range of 2,000.

More than 100 others were killed in neighboring countries
and tens of thousands lost their homes across Central America
and southern Mexico.

In Cua, volunteers sprayed the disaster area with
disinfectant and lime while residents took refuge in shelters
higher up in these remote mountains near the Mexican border.

Ragged clothing, bits of plastic, a cabbage and an umbrella
lay scattered in the muck. The hamlet was almost empty, but for
abandoned dogs, chickens and a black pig.

Corn fields and homes were ruined, so the survivors of the
rains face even deeper poverty in what was already a depressing
town of half-built homes with poor basic services and tenuous
road links to the outside world.


Eulalio Bravo, 29, stood clutching a child in his arms and
mourned the friends and neighbors sucked away in the mud.

"We are all of the same blood," he said, adding that the
government had again left rural Indians to die alone with
little or no help. "We are very forgotten. They don't even talk
about us in the city."

Once the region's dominant culture, Maya Indians fell under
Spanish rule around 500 years ago and have remained isolated
and impoverished ever since, even though they still make up 60
percent of Guatemala's population.

During a 36-year war that ended only in 1996, Mayans bore
the brunt of brutal army-led campaigns that razed entire
villages. An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the war,
most of them Indians.

Mayan villages have the highest levels of malnutrition,
illiteracy and poverty, and the lowest levels of government
spending on health, education and infrastructure.

They are isolated and discriminated against, often seen as
little more than house-servants to the country's non-Indians.

When natural disasters hit, they invariably do most damage
to Mayan areas where people settle in flimsy homes by rivers
and on mountain slopes.

When Stan's rains battered the country, rescue teams and
supplies of food and medicines took days to arrive.

President Oscar Berger flew on Tuesday to the village of
Panabaj where up to 1,400 people died in the biggest single
tragedy of the last week.

Accompanied by Indian rights activist and Nobel peace prize
winner Rigoberta Menchu, who has joined his conservative
government, Berger promised to build temporary shelters for the
homeless and land for them to resettle on.

Menchu held a paper mask over her mouth against the stench,
and wept as she picked her way through the rubble and remains
of homes at the edge of the devastated village.

Thousand of locals turned out to see the president but some
complained about his government's slow response.

"It's very late, a week has already passed, He should have
come earlier," said Salvador Ramirez, a local craftsman.

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel and Eduardo