Colombia volcano survivors' plight. Struggle to rebuild goes on, but many still without homes or jobs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Through the slats of a wooden crate, a solitary and unattended baby girl quietly watches the parade of refugee life in a tent city of Nevado del Ruiz volcano survivors. Spared somehow from the mud flows that poured off the volcano into the town of Armero last November, the brown-eyed toddler lost every relative except her grandfather. He works long days to support them and leaves her in the dusty crate.

The young girl, who sits solemnly all day, is a quiet symbol of the 29,000 damnificados -- the damned, as survivors of the volcano eruption are called in this country.

Though their community leaders and the Colombian government have struggled through six months of controversy over how to accommodate their needs, most of the survivors, like the Armero child, still sit dazed and displaced:

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Nearly all of them have lost part or all of their families. One man here lost 26 relatives; another has heard a brother-in-law survived, but is unsure how to find him.

They are mostly idle, because the local agricultural economy was totally disrupted by the disaster. Those who have gone to urban areas such as Bogot'a, Medellin, or Cali have found their prospects dimmed by high urban unemployment.

They've been violently separated from their past -- a fact that seems amplified by their current condition. One Armero survivor offers without prompting to describe his six-mile tumble on a wave of mud and his return to find a mud flat where once thrived a town that was home to several generations of his family.

The goal of both the Colombian government and the survivor organizations established after the disaster is to channel $30 million of international aid sent here into rebuilding the region. In the meantime, they try to meet the refugees' immediate needs of food and shelter.

Resurgir, the government's relief and reconstruction agency for volcano survivors, is building 5,000 new homes on high ground in the region surrounding Armero. Half of those new homes are planned to be built here in L'erida, where 3,000 survivors are living temporarily in several camps. Rebuilding efforts are focused in this region, which has the biggest concentration of survivors.

Survivors receive ``pensions'' of $48 a month for heads of households and $24 for dependents. Survivors are entitled to jobs -- paying about $4 a day -- in the Resurgir construction projects.

But the process has been wrought with controversy. For example, because the plight of survivors remains serious, survivor leadership has become politicized, even accused of having leftist guerrilla sympathies. The leaders, meanwhile, accuse the government of mishandling funds, because the refugees' problems have not been solved.

The government says that the survivors don't understand the complicated and lengthy process of rebuilding.``Everyone has a reason to be complaining. The problem is just huge, with complex psychological, human, technical, financial, and scientific aspects,'' says Joaqu'in Caicedo, financial director of Resurgir.

``To get where we are now, we had to fight,'' Guillermo S'anchez says of the tent city here called the Guillermo Paez camp, named after an Armero boy who survived several days caught in a mud flow before being rescued.

Mr. S'anchez, president of the National Council of Survivors, says that from the beginning there was poor treatment of survivors by the government. A street vendor before the tragedy, the 23-year-old S'anchez has become a political force in this tent city of 1,000 and among the 28,000 other survivors he represents in negotiations with the government.

``We knew how much money was coming in [from charity around the world], because we read it in the paper. And I knew the money would never go where it should, unless there was a fervor in Armero to get the money,'' he says.

S'anchez says the Guillermo Paez tent city, a clean but Spartan camp, was built by Resurgir only after survivors invaded the land and demanded it be given to them for temporary housing in March.

Resurgir officials say that, in the beginning, the relief program may have been ``uncontrolled.'' The sudden wave of foreign aid pouring in without the administrative structure to handle it was a problem, they say.

Further, the government has had to defend the Resurgir director, who is a wealthy real estate developer -- well qualified for the job, but a public relations problem among the extremely poor survivors.

Mr. Caicedo says that the survivors are suspicious of where the money is going. They don't understand, he adds, that only one-third of the money came in the form of direct cash donations, because of the ``unfortunate image South American and African countries'' have for corruption.

``Much of this money is for specific projects . . . roads, electricity construction. The monthly payments for survivors have come from direct cash donations. We've spent about $1 million a month on this,'' says Caicedo. He adds that he expects survivors' complaints to be greater when they learn that the cash for payments -- about $10 million -- will have been depleted by next month.

The aid program has been complicated by the fact that many Colombians who aren't survivors have tried to take advantage of benefits available to the refugees. Resurgir says there are more survivor identification cards in circulation than there are estimated survivors.

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