May 17, 1999
Horror of Hurricane Mitch won't go away

Herald Staff Writer

ROLANDO RODRIGUEZ, Nicaragua -- Every morning there are new ones, arms
and legs emerging as if clawing their way out of a muddy grave.

``All around here, bodies have been coming out of the ground,'' said Rafael
Antonio Guevara, a 35-year-old Red Cross worker, as he walked along the
desolate plain that, before Hurricane Mitch, was a bustling village. ``Our dead are
coming back.''

Rolando Rodriguez was one of several villages on the slopes of the Casitas
Volcano that were buried under tons of mud and rock last October when a
hurricane-swollen lake at the top gave way. About 1,100 corpses were recovered
from the muck and debris.

Nearly 800 other villagers were declared missing, their bodies entombed under a
mountain of mud that dried to the consistency of cement soon after the rain
stopped. But a new rainy season began this month, and now Hurricane Mitch's
dead are stirring.

``Every day, it rains, and every day, some new bodies rise to the surface,'' said
Julio Cesar Reyes, 43, who lost his mother and 10 other relatives to the mudslide.
``It is a reminder of what happened to us -- not that we need one. Every day, we
wake up and everywhere we look there is a reminder of what happened.''

Thousands still homeless

Actually, Hurricane Mitch has never stopped  happening here. Six months after
the storm ended, more than 2,700 homeless refugees are still clustered into four
camps in the nearby town of Posoltega.

Although the government has built 100 new homes and an additional 520 financed
with foreign aid are in the planning stages, local officials say that will barely fill
half the need for new homes. Nearly 4,100 people are still living on the unstable
slopes of the Casitas Volcano, fearfully wondering if the furious new storms --
rainfall this May has broken the previous record by 50 percent -- will unleash
another mudslide, but with no place else to go.

``Every time it rains, every time it even gets cloudy, everyone here is afraid that
the mud will come back after us,'' said Marta Rivera, executive director of the
Maria Elena Cuadra Women's Movement, a group distributing aid to refugees.
``Everyone here is suffering from psychological trauma.''

Nothing has been more traumatic than the bodies rising from the mud. Because
many are reduced to fragmented skeletons, it's impossible to be certain how
many have been found. But local officials believe the number is between 40 and

Now shrouded in black plastic garbage bags, they lie in neat rows a few yards
from where Rolando Rodriguez's schoolhouse is thought to be buried in the mud.
A single skull has been left uncovered, keeping a lonely vigil that, villagers believe,
will frighten away wild dogs and other predators.

Search for bodies continues

A mass burial at the site is scheduled for today, if it doesn't rain. Meanwhile, the
rows of bags grow longer each day as search parties continue to scour the
volcano's slopes.

``It can be a terrible sight when you find one,'' said Santiago Rueda, a 30-year-old
refugee who leads one of the search parties. ``When we started off, it affected us
a lot. The bodies were in such a bad state that you can almost never tell who they
were, and you're always thinking, `What if this decaying corpse I'm looking at is
my wife?'

``But, after a while, we realized that was exactly why we have to do this, and why
we have to keep working. That body could  be my wife, and she deserves a
decent burial.''

Rueda's wife, two children and 16 other relatives died in the mudslide.

As the team searched an overgrown field along the periphery of the mudslide, the
sky opened into a blinding deluge of water. The searchers bowed their backs
against the rain and began the half-mile trek back to the nearest road.

Concern for life

When a visiting reporter stumbled uncertainly in the pockmarked field, one of the
searchers hung back to help him.

``Be careful out here, please be careful,'' he said. ``We don't want to bury anyone
else out here.''

At 17, William Castillo already knows a lot about burials. His entire family -- 37
people, everyone but a single younger brother -- lies somewhere under the mud.

As everyone inched toward the road, Castillo noted that every day, the rain seems
to start earlier and there's less time to search.

``It seems like it's raining more, raining harder, than ever before,'' he said, raising
his face into the downpour to look at the sky. ``But, still, I don't think we could
ever have another disaster like last year. I don't think so.''

It sounded less like a prediction than a prayer.

                     Copyright 1999 Miami Herald