Colombians join together to help fellow citizens after eruption. National and international aid flows to nation to help volcano survivors
Bogot'a, Colombia — Despite two successive tragedies in the past 12 days, Colombia is probably more united now than it has been for decades. In an unprecented outpouring of solidarity, Colombians of all classes have given medical supplies, clothes, food, and money to help the victims of last week's volcanic eruption, which killed an estimated 22,000 people in central Colombia.
The calamity diverted attention from the confusion and anger that followed a 28-hour siege of the country's Supreme Court by the leftist M-19 guerrilla movement in the previous week. Nearly 100 people died in the attack, including half the Supreme Court magistrates.
Only a few days later came word that the 17,655-ft Nevado del Ruiz (``snow of Ruiz'') volcano in the central Andes had exploded, setting off a series of avalanches that devastated nearby population centers.
Ninty-five percent of Armero, a town of 22,000 people, was destroyed. The survivors, many of them seriously injured, were stranded on rooftops and in trees. The town itself was buried in mud.
Electrical lines were destroyed, throwing the entire region into darkness. Most of the bridges were swept away by the swollen rivers and many of the roads were blocked by landslides. To make matters worse, the tragedy occurred at the height of Colombia's rainy season when the rivers frequently overflow their banks. When the avalanche struck on Wednesday night, it had been raining for more than 24 hours.
Political bickering quickly subsided in the face of such a catastrophe, and the nation's entire forces were directed toward helping the 21,000 people who were injured or left homeless. President Belisario Betancur and four of his ministers flew to the region to direct operations while for aid calls went out throughout the country and abroad.
The response has been extraordinary. More than 6,000 Bogot'ans stood in line for hours in order to donate blood on the first day after the disaster. Truckloads of clothing were sent by the capital's slumdwellers to swell the tons of food, medicine, and equipment collected at Bogot'a's international fair grounds.
Colombia's leading television stars and beauty queens opened a second collection at a major shopping center, urging contributors to bring medicine and food. Television and radio stations broadcast their pleas as well as providing round-the-clock reports on the disaster area's needs and the names of survivors.
Hundreds of people called the radio stations to offer their homes to the survivors or adopt children orphaned by the disaster, and the government welfare and housing agencies and Roman Catholic organizations announced they would provide temporary housing for the homeless.
Even the children are helping. Although my seven-year-old daughter has only a vague understanding of the disaster, she explained that her school wanted clothing for the ``children of the volcano.'' She filled a sack of her own clothes for them, including several cherished items.
Both the government Agrarian Bank and the Central Bank opened special accounts for contributions in offices throughout the country, and several private banks and insurance companies followed suit. Colombian and foreign companies based here promised millions of dollars in aid. President Betancur, his Cabinet, and the armed forces will also donate one day's salary for the reconstruction of the ``Pomepii of the Andes,'' as Armero is now called.
International support was impressive. The United States dispatched 12 helicopters to the disaster area in addition to field hospitals, tents, and other equipment, and US Ambassador Charles Gillespie made a $25,000 contribution on behalf of the Americans.
Pope John Paul II sent a message of condolence and $100,000. France, West Germany, and Spain contributed doctors, equipment, medicine, and money, as did the UN and the International Red Cross.
Mexico, which received Colombian aid during the recent earthquake that devastated Mexico City, responded in kind with physicians, field hospitals, and medicines. The Mexican ambassador also flew to the region near Armero to express his country's solidarity with Colombians at a time of national hardship.
Much of the aid has yet not arrived in the area because of distribution bottlenecks, the difficult mountainous terrain, and the collapse of bridges and roads. The only means of reaching Armero is by helicopter.
As often happens in Latin America, the poor have given the most. In the village of L'erida, south of Armero, where many of the survivors were taken after the avalanche, the primary need is food and clothing.
The villagers, most of them poor, gave all they possessed to their injured neighbors, many of whom were naked and covered in mud when rescued.
While the Colombians have been too busy with rescue efforts to dwell on why the disaster happened, there are bound to be recriminations, just as there were in the wake of the Supreme Court siege.
The deaths in that case provoked a backlash against the government as well as the guerrillas, because of the former's refusal to negotiate with the M-19 to obtain the hostages' release. Angry congressmen called for Betancur's resignation and the judiciary went on strike to protest the government's handling of the affair.
The political fallout promised to deepen the division between right and left, destroying Betancur's hopes of bringing peace to Colombia after nearly four decades of guerrilla warfare.
In the case of the present crisis, the government has known of the potential danger since December 1984, when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano ejected an unusual quantity of sulphuric gases.
US and Japanese volcanologists who studied Ruiz discounted the possibility of an immediate eruption, but this September, when Ruiz threw up rivers of lava, the authorities became sufficiently alarmed to alert the surrounding population of the possible need for evacuation.
No plan was put into effect, however, because the government was caught up in other problems, including a dispute with the International Monetary Fund and a guerrilla war in southwestern Colombia.
Some rudimentary seismographic equipment was installed near the craters, but on the fatal day of the eruption no one was at the site to read the warnings. Even though agents of the Colombian Civil Defense visited Armero and other to the area because of reassurances by local government authorities and scientists that there was no real danger.
Accustomed to the fall of volcanic ash, Armero's inhabitants were more concerned about an enormous natural lake that had formed at the headwaters of the Lagunilla River on the edge of the town. Although local geologists recommended the construction of temporary tunnels to drain off most of the lake, the plan remained on the drawing board at the weekend.
As a rudimentary precaution, a pole was placed in the Lagunilla River to measure its rise, and Red Cross volunteers were stationed on the banks to give the alert in case of a flood. Many of them died when an avalanche, set off by Ruiz's melting snowcap, struck the lake, turning it into an enormous mass of churning mud that enveloped Armero.
US and European volcanologists have been called in by the government to establish a sophisticated seismographic warning system, and populations near the volcanoes which stud the Colombian Andes have learned from Armero that the call for evacuation must be instantly heeded.
Meanwhile, Colombians are seeking to heal the wounds of two consecutive tragedies. Betancur spoke for his people when he said that Colombians ``must recover their faith, hope, and confidence in each other. We are going to help each other, and the reconstruction will begin immediately.''