Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Honduras: When the Saints Arrive

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Honduras: When the Saints Arrive

Article excerpt

Santos has two wives and four children; I have one wife and two children. Santos is Honduran; I'm American. But we have something in common, Santos tells me as we drive through a western barrio of San Pedro Sula. "We're detectives,' he says.

Snoops on the loose, I respond, under my breath.

We've been at it now for three days, driving the city from one end to the other, hitting every warehouse where we believe or have been told there's food and clothing for the refugees from Hurricane Mitch. We've already stopped at seven of the city's twenty-nine albergues, or refugee shelters. The list in hand says there are 7,973 people in these centers, 3,251 of whom are living at three macro albergues. The largest, the Olympic Stadium, is a tent-city home to 1,687 people. Twenty of the albergues are schools.

The story and the picture we're getting don't vary a whole lot from one place to another. In the schools we find hundreds of families living in dark and cramped classrooms amid their meager belongings. They cook on small stoves and tiny open-pit fires in the enclosed play yards. Children run around naked and shoeless and play as children play. Mothers watch and mope, and tend to small matters - keeping track of their children, filling buckets with water from the municipal trucks that park out front. A few men and some boys wander about, but most are on the streets looking for work or working at jobs they had before Mitch engraved his name on the Honduran conscience in late October 1998.

Everyone has a complaint to throw our way. Mostly they're directed at me, because I'm the tall white Yankee with a Boston baseball cap and Spanish that's good but obviously not native. Santos, slight of stature and dark brown and wearing reflector aviator sunglasses and a dark shirt and slacks, looks like a malicious bodyguard.

At the top of every complainer's list is why everyone is getting so little food, especially since the word is out that foreigners have sent plenty for them to eat. In the six weeks since the heavy rains washed away their insubstantial adobe homes, the refugees in San Pedro Sula's albergues have gotten exactly two allotments of food: 30 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of beans, 10 pounds of wheat soy, a small quantity of cooking oil. In each allotment, a family of two has received the same as a family of eight or ten - and there are lots of families with eight or ten mouths to feed. No one has received so much as a single tin of food or bottle of water. In our first visit to the Olympic Stadium, after we'd shown surprise that no distinction was being made among family sizes when distributing food, a representative of the Filadelfia Church said that "someone was looking into the matter."

Many of the refugees got one bar of soap in the first food distribution, and none in the second; or vice-versa. The kids, and they're about half of the refugees, are dirty, and if not naked then shoeless and needy. The parents and adults, though never naked, are not much better off. Yet what's surprising is that there's not much uncleanliness to smell, and nothing like what you'd expect with so little soap.

Santos and I hear, and see, reason for other complaints. No one has received any clothes or shoes. And almost no one has put his head on what is needed most, something decent to sleep on: anything that resembles a mat, something reasonably soft, something other than a piece of thin cardboard.

At one of the school shelters Santos and I get a real earful because three of the men had worked for a couple of days at two of the large warehouses controlled by the Chamber of Commerce. There they saw hundreds of boxes and scores of pallets full of canned goods and bottled water and clothing and medicines, and they couldn't have any of it. They weren't even allowed to pick out a pair of shoes from the mountains of zapatos that came into view. They were getting nothing, and neither was anyone else, because, as we were told, it all had to be "classified and sorted" before any of it could be distributed. …

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