For the Reyes family, earthquake brings one more tragedy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

``La Forca'' means what it says in Spanish -- ``the ditch.'' And the community of 1,000 people who lived precariously on the steep slopes of the ravine, overlooking a putrid drain, were among the most vulnerable to Friday's earthquake. Now, they are camping out in suburban streets on the banks of the tree-filled gully, abandoning their squalid shacks of corrugated iron, bamboo, and flattened oil drums for an even feebler shelter.

Miguel Reyes Amaya says he came home Friday afternoon to find his shanty a pile of rubble at the bottom of the ravine. The few sticks of furniture he managed to salvage, protected from the sun and rain by a sheet of plastic, are now his family's home.

Mr. Reyes, a squat construction worker who says he is lucky to find three months work a year, is a typical resident of the gullies, known as barrancas, that snake through the city, even into its wealthiest areas. Like hundreds of thousands of fellow slum dwellers, he moved to the capital to escape the civil war that has racked the countryside for the past 6 years.

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``I lived in Cerron Grande,'' a zone where the guerrillas are particularly active, Reyes recalls. ``It was just too heavy there, all you could do was lose.'' But Reyes's experience of forced moves goes back even further into Salvadorean history. In the 1960s he used to live in Honduras, only to be expelled in 1969, along with thousands of other Salvadoreans, in a move that provoked a brief war between the two neighbors. Many Salvadoreans had moved to Honduras to find work. ``That was terrible,'' he says. ``We had to leave without anything at all. I even left my wife -- because she was Honduran -- and my children there.'' He has not seen them since, he says, and now has a new family.

Reyes's mother, tiny 78-year-old Mar'ia Expectaci'on, lived through the Honduran exodus, too, and has been in La Forca for 14 years. ``I've worked all my life. All the work I have to do just to see this,'' she says, surveying the cluster of patch work tents around her. ``That's the life of a poor person.'' But her toothless smile is still bright. She is proud of her nine sons, glad that the two of them who live in La Forca are alive, and tender with her 11-year-old grandson, Walter, as she strokes his injured head.

``I was building a new brick wall for the house'' when the earthquake struck just before lunchtime on Friday, Walter explains. ``A brick fell on me, and then a piece of wood. The Red Cross took me with my grandmother to the Bloom Hospital, but it had fallen down so the Red Cross put this bandage on. ''

With a rope coiled around one shoulder and a sledge hammer over the other, Miguel Reyes was about to knock down a brick wall on Monday evening. It was leaning dangerously close to one of the new shelters, he worried. But beyond such immediate tasks he has only a vague idea of his future. ``We shall just have to wait to see if there is any aid from abroad and what the government does,'' he says. ``I hope they will find us some land and give us the right to live on it.''

But experience teaches, Reyes says, that assistance does not always reach its intended destination. ``We've lived through several tragedies now,'' he says. ``But I remember when we had to leave Honduras a lot of aid was given for the refugees. I didn't even see a couple of pounds of rice.''

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