Grim search in the rubble at Guatemala’s empty Ground Zero

Grim search in the rubble at Guatemala’s empty Ground Zero

EL RODEO,. Police tied a red tape to an electricity pole outside Henry Rivas’s house. It’s supposed to warn of danger, but after Sunday’s devastating volcanic eruption, Henry has come to think of it as marking a boundary between life and death.

Two hundred metres up the road, on the other side of the tape, is the dust-blanketed heap of rubble that once was the small town of San Miguel Los Lotes.

It bore the brunt of Fuego’s wrath. Locals are referring to it as “Ground Zero”.

Now it’s a sea of still, smoldering gray dust that, kicked up with the slightest movement, hangs in the hazy air along with the stench of charred chickens, cows and other animals.

Beneath this thick ash blanket, along with the heaped cars and vans and rubble, lie an unknown number of bodies. The known death toll stands at 109, with nearly 200 missing.

“Now we are afraid that the lava will bury us,” said Rivas, 37, who like most people here, was unbothered by the volcano’s occasional activity until Sunday.

He was away working in Honduras when a fast-moving stream of boiling mud and incandescent rocks scoured the neighboring village from the side of the mountain.

From his patio there’s not a soul to be seen in the neighborhood. Most have yet to return since Sunday’s catastrophic eruption.

The only noticeable movement is of strays dogs and chickens picking at the dust, occasional emergency service trucks loaded with ash and the searchers who recovered four more bodies here on Wednesday.

Rivas’s wife told him what happened on Sunday. The authorities gave them no warning. She left running with her four children, joining what turned out to be the survivors from Los Lotes.

Since then, Henry says his wife only thinks about where they are going to live now. Their home was spared, but the memories of what happened are too strong for them to go back, he said.

They are now putting their hopes in divine intervention and President Jimmy Morales.

“We ask God and the president to give us a plot far from here,” he said.

Fear of looting

In El Rodeo, home to 8,500 people a kilometer away, locals say they are still spooked by the rumblings of the volcano as well as the threat of looters.

“I ran out and left the store open, but when I came back they had taken everything,” said Demetrio Cuc, 33, who owns a grocery store at a busy intersection in El Rodeo.

Cuc’s store is one of the few shops that have reopened since Sunday. The neighboring pharmacy and a takeaway have not.

Deissy Omar, 20, returned three days after the disaster to “pick up a few of my things” she left behind when she fled Sunday. Others weren’t so lucky. Her cousin, his wife and their three children were killed, she said.

Omar’s family walked several kilometers from the town to a house they have been given the loan of. Now depending on state help, they have asked to be rehoused far from the volcano.

Older neighbors say the volcano doesn’t scare them. They have grown accustomed to its grumblings over the years, though they recognize Sunday’s eruption was unprecedented.

“I have seen thousands of eruptions but none like this one,” said Francisco Javier Canas, an 81-year-old from El Salvador, who have lived for more than 50 years in the area around the volcano.


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