Relief delayed as Nicaraguans grow desperate
By ANDRES VIGLUCCI
Herald Staff Writer
MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Storm-ravaged areas of Nicaragua are in the grip
hunger and rising desperation as the country's government, overwhelmed by need
and a crippled transportation system, has been unable to get food and other aid to
thousands left homeless and helpless by Hurricane Mitch.
Even as planeloads of supplies poured in Wednesday from Mexico, Canada
the United States, Nicaraguan government officials say a shortage of helicopters
has made it nearly impossible to get critical goods to many of the hardest-hit areas,
which are still unreachable by road.
Even in Managua, residents of flooded lakeside slums, many of them single
with children, have been forced to sleep in the street for a week. Their food comes
from ordinary Nicaraguans who have organized donations of rice, bread and
``It's the people who have helped us, not the government,'' said Urania
Monguia, 37. She was feeding some of her six children bread and a chocolate
drink handed out of a station wagon by volunteers to displaced residents of a slum
called La Tejera. ``This is all we have had to eat today, and if not for them, we
would have eaten nothing at all.''
President asks for calm
In a nationally televised news conference Wednesday, Nicaraguan President
Arnoldo Aleman, the object of increasingly bitter complaints by the leftist political
opposition and storm victims, acknowledged the shortcomings in the relief effort
and pleaded for patience.
``We ask for calm. We know that asking for calm at a moment when there
hunger and suffering is hard and cruel,'' he said. ``But I call for understanding. We
ask you to have faith.''
Aleman, who was booed Tuesday as he toured storm-damaged areas northwest
of Managua, said the government's priorities have been to save those in danger
first, then begin repairs on major roads needed for distribution of food and
Some major roads have been cleared and temporary bridges built to replace
destroyed by the rain, he said. But aid distribution remains largely dependent on
the Nicaraguan air force's five helicopters and other helicopters only now arriving
from the United States, Mexico and Panama.
``The main priority has been safeguarding human life. Because of the lack
helicopters, the flow of aid has been slow,'' Aleman said. ``Nicaragua's situation
before this was no bed of roses. Today it's worse.''
Border area hurt most
The Nicaraguan air force pilots, he said, are exhausted after days of continuous
flying. And rain and bad weather across much of Nicaragua on Wednesday
prevented helicopters laden with food and other aid from reaching 12 of 20 towns
due to receive the shipments, Aleman and other officials said.
Observers say the food shortage has become especially acute in areas near
Honduran border, among the hardest hit in the country and which have received
practically no help.
``People are starting to go hungry,'' said a U.S. Embassy official who
stranded by the storm for 10 days in Ocotal, a city near the border. ``You could
feel the anxiety. People were coming in for food from the countryside and they
were leaving empty-handed, and a little angry.''
Nicaraguan government officials say the pace of distribution should pick
rapidly. They hope to get some 90,000 pounds of food and medicine out to
affected areas daily. On Tuesday, before bad weather set in, they shipped about
98,000 pounds of aid out of Managua, the government said.
Nations send help
On Wednesday, Managua's airport crews were put to work unloading about
36,000 pounds of rice, beans, flour and other foodstuffs arriving on military planes
from Mexico, which also sent 200 troops and two helicopters to help with relieve
The United States, which already contributed $75,000 in plastic tarps,
and containers of water, has another shipment worth $300,000 on the way. Three
U.S. military helicopters are already here, with three more due. Three U.S. food
flights are expected to arrive Saturday.
Also on the way are two Canadian food flights and an Argentine government
Boeing 737 loaded with supplies, Nicaragua's government said.
But for the homeless former residents of La Tejera in Managua, the government's
promises ring hollow.
City of Managua officials decided to clear the flimsy slum, which consisted
of shacks made of scrap wood and tin, and move residents to vacant land in
Ciudad Sandino, some 12 miles away.
`Talk is cheap'
The people of La Tejera, after days with no sign of help from the national
government, fear what they will find there won't be much better. They say they are
receiving no food, clothes, soap or blankets.
``The people from the government come only to see but they bring nothing.
say they are giving us land but no structures. They say they will give us materials to
build, but it's a lie,'' said Miriam Davila Hernandez, 22, clutching her 9-month-old
boy to her shoulder. ``Talk is cheap.''
City officials, who began trucking residents out Wednesday, said they can't
much more for them than move them out.
``We don't have the resources,'' said Santos Mercado Sandino, a transportation
coordinator for the city. ``I hear their pleas, and it fills me with worry. It pains me.
This is a catastrophe. But from the national government, I have not seen the
response in terms of food and clothing that is needed.''
Many of La Tejera's men, aided by their children, scavenged their own
water-logged homes for usable pieces of wood and zinc roofing to build their
shacks anew in Ciudad Sandino.
They stacked the materials, which looked like so much debris, on the city
With cheers, they rattled down the rutted Managua street toward their uncertain
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald