Monday, July 30, 2018

Of Ninja Turtles, a Balloon Animal Making Police Squad and an Erupting Volcano

By now the road to Escuintla is familiar and we no longer let Google Maps lure us into the maze that is the centre of Amatitlán. But it still took us more than twice as long as it would have before the eruption of the Fuego Volcano destroyed Route 14 on the 3rd of June. Not that no work is being done! COVIAL (Road Maintenance) is working hard to clear, repair and amplify the road!

In the meantime volunteers and survivors from the nearby communities of San Miguel los Lotes and El Rodeo keep searching for the remains of their loved ones, without any help (or permission) from the government. The public machinery that would be so helpful is being used to clear a road that according to experts will mostly likely be destroyed anyway by the millions of tons of volcanic debris that still needs to find its way down. Last week the heavy equipment illegally made way in between the houses in San Miguel Los Lotes in order to amplify the road. Human remains that were found were put in plastic bags and dumped on the side. This is only days after Sergio Cabañas, head of CONRED (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Disastres) talked down the find of likely 68 people as: “They’re not bodies, just pieces of people.”

Hundreds, if not thousands of people still lie buried on the flanks of the volcano and nothing is being done (except for efforts made by survivors from those communities and initiatives by volunteer groups such as Antigua al Rescate.)
If an archaeological excavation before the construction of a new building would reveal ancient human bones, they’d be treated with all the possible professional care and respect.
And here we’re talking about people who died LESS THAN TWO MONTHS AGO!!! It is as if the government can’t forget them soon enough. 

But back to Escuintla.
When Jessica Hoult and I arrived at the school, the kids were already being entertained. Four blond missionary children were performing a dance for them and afterwards there was for each a colouring sheet of Faith being the light that helps you to believe.
We set up our supplies and when the missionaries were winding up their activity, the kids started coming to our table. We had brought big sheets for free painting as well as materials to make masks. Just like last week, the kids went wild and created one piece of art after the other. Kitten and Ninja Turtle masks appeared as out of nowhere. Paintings were created collectively or individually. Or, as in the case of one boy and a girl, together without even realizing it. When they saw that their skies matched, they decided to continue working together on an erupting volcano. What a creative bunch!

We had a bit of a WTF moment when a group of about 20 police men and women walked into the shelter. Turns out they came to entertain the kids with balloon animals and a clown.
Although the kids were very concentrated painting, we cut the activity a bit short because the police were waiting for them. So no story telling this time, for which my throat was grateful.

While Jessica and I cleaned up after our activity, the clown was doing a great job entertaining the kids, including his colleagues in the show. The kids were interacting with the police in a fun way. But not all activities seemed to have been well thought through. Jessica and I were in shock when three police guys picked up three young adolescent girls to give them piggy back rides over the patio. “They’re groping their butts!” cried Jessica, appalled, while I mostly couldn’t get over the fact that the police guys were ARMED! But everybody else was laughing and having a great time. 

In Alotenango things seemed to be pretty much the same. Ringing bells summon people to a funeral mass. The stage in the central park is still being used for wakes for the ongoing stream of victims. This day it was Doña Vicenta López , a 65 year old resident from San Migiuel Los Lotes. A day later there would be a funeral for 7 members of the Pamal family.  

Accompanied by Henry Navarijo and Marlon of the Carpentry Project in Alotenango, we quickly set up shop at the shelter for a bit of mask making. Just like last week we had mostly younger kids who needed quite a bit of help so they kept us pretty busy. The same psychologists from last week were around with activities too, so we ended up with only about 15 kids.

Now that the kids go to school and other groups are working with them too, I don’t think there’s much need for us to keep coming to the shelter for some art and fun, but we have decided to continue anyway. Because, well, why not? The kids are having fun, so do we and it can’t hurt to keep this thing warm until the people are settled in transition shelters where we could plan a bit more elaborate art projects or art therapy sessions. For now we’ll just keep going!

Thank you Wendy, Ineke, Will, Jenneca, Colour4Kids, Debbie, Judy and Maureen for your support. And of course Abi, Jessica, Henry, Otoniel and Marlon for coming along.  

Friday, July 20, 2018

More Art Relief in Alotenango and Escuintla

Weird how even a disaster eventually runs into a routine… People in the shelters are well settled by now, as if they never lived anywhere else. But there’s also a growing sense of boredom and depression. So it’s a real good thing that since this week in Alotenango kids are going back to school!!! Both the children from the shelters (which are public schools) and all the other kids from Alotenango are now receiving classes in El Calvario, another school building in town. No idea how they all fit in, but I’m very glad about this development.

Last week I went to Alotenango with Sharan Gainor, Henry Navarijo and Otoniel of the Carpentry Project. Upon arrival in the Municipality we were told we couldn’t go to our regular spot, the smaller shelter, because “The Government” was there to talk to the people (Again or still? See previous post). But we could go to the main shelter. It was a pity we wouldn’t get to see “our” kids, but since we were already there, we went to the main shelter. We set up in the smaller of two patios, surrounded by 14 classrooms, just to give you an idea how huge this school is. The activity of the day was making puppets out of paper bags, which the 25 participants seemed to enjoy. After that I read some stories and then it was lunchtime and the kids ran off to eat. It was an okay experience, but the children weren’t as enthusiastic as the ones in the smaller centre. (Or maybe I’m being judgmental because I’ve grown to like “our” kids so much.)

On Saturday the 14th Jessica Hoult and I set off for Escuintla. The shelter we had visited previously (a Catholic Church) has been evacuated with its residents reassigned to other shelters. The one we visited this time was in a public school and we were welcomed by its director who runs the shelter. The ambience was pretty relaxed. We repeated the same art activity, this time with much more success. The kids we’re really into it and made one puppet after the other. Then they started making all kinds of other stuff too, such as handbags out of the paper bags. It was really nice to see the kids so emerged in their art work. Going back tomorrow!

Yesterday we returned to the smaller shelter in Alotenango. Now that the kids go to school we had to change our schedule from morning to the afternoon. We didn’t have that many kids, only 15 or so, because some other volunteers were doing activities too, such as washing hands with the little ones and board games. Deducting from the volunteers’ T-shirts they’re psychologists, sponsored by a long list of the biggest organizations (Save the Children, UNICEF etc.) They’re coming in a few times a week now. And since the kids are also going back to school now, I have to rethink our weekly visits. Especially the ones to Escuintla are rather gruesome. Last week it took us three hours to get back to Antigua!

But as long as kids want us to come, I’ll be going, even though I go through my art supplies rather fast. For the first time ever in my experience I have trouble controlling the supplies and almost every time we lose a pack of markers or a few scissors. I think it’s because the kids receive so many donations, they just assume everything is for free. Last week we even lost a favourite (and borrowed! Sorry Sarah Peller!!!) book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. A little girl ran off to her dorm with two books. When we asked for the books back (“because we still had to read it”), the mom told us the kid had said we had given them to her. In the end we only retrieved one of the books and The Very Hungry Caterpillar stayed behind. I hope they enjoy it.

Thanks again to anyone who made this possible, volunteering or donating towards art supplies!
To be continued!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Month After the Eruption in Alotenango

It’s been over a month now since the eruption of the volcano and things are turning back to “normal” in the town of Alotenango. Although cars and busses are still not allowed into the centre and the shelters are still open, there’s a lot less going on in the Central Park. The three yellow Scientology tents have been abandoned and while the main tent over the centre stage is still up, the chairs, banners and flowers on stage are all gone.

What’s going to happen now is still very confusing. The government is building transition shelters near Escuintla so the people who are in the current shelters (many of them public schools) can move there soon. Last week we were told it would take another two weeks. Today we heard it will take at least another month.
In the mean time UNICEF has launched a campaign, in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and other organizations, to start classes for the children who have now missed already more than a month of school on July 9th. UNICEF has donated 20 tents (for 61 shelters) to be used as temporary schools. But what happens to the children who are now living in schools where there is no space for those tents and classrooms have been converted in dorms? And the students who normally attend those schools? In the case of Alotenango there are a few hundred kids taking shelter in schools and a couple of thousand children from the town itself, none of which have received classes since June 4th.

Even more confusing is the number of victims. The official number of deaths is 113 and 332 people still missing, presumed death. However, a non-governmental group called Antigua al Rescate held a press conference yesterday declaring that there are most likely 2900 people still missing, based on interviews with 700 survivors from San Miguel los Lotes who are now living divided over 21 temporary shelters. And this number makes much more sense.
First of all, the Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses, let’s say the national morgue, says 188 bodies have been brought in from Zone 0 (of which only 85 have been identified). That’s already substantially more than the government’s number of 113 victims.
Secondly, if you look at Google Earth and count the houses, as some people have done, and assume that each house was home to an average of 6 people, then the numbers are the following:
            El Rodeo                                  800 Houses      4800 Inhabitants
            San Jancito El Rodeo                70 Houses        420 Inhabitants
San Miguel los Lotes                80 Houses        480 Inhabitants

That makes a total of 4800 people, not counting all small villages and hamlets that have been devastated. Anyway, the number is much higher than the 3600 people now in shelters, although there are of course also people who are not staying in shelters.
The problem is that the government bases its counts on a census done in 2001, if I recall the year correctly, and it is safe to assume that those communities have grown substantially over the last 17 years. Also, there appear to have been three parties going on in one of the communities, which could make the number even higher. And if entire families have perished, entire communities have disappeared, who is left to report he missing?

In the meantime the search for bodies has officially stopped. Many people from the affected area as well as volunteers continue to look for loved ones, armed with shovels and picks, even though the police try to stop them from entering Zone 0. But people are desperate to bury their death, to know for sure what happened to those left behind. With or without help from the government, the recovery still goes on.

As does life in the shelter.
This time there was no line to enter the shelter and within a few minutes we had our permission and name tags. No need to sign an agreement this time, we didn’t even have to show or leave our ID. But once I entered the shelter with Abi and Otto, the administrative assistant and a student of the Carpentry Project, we were stopped and told quite rudely by yet another coordinator that we couldn’t do our workshop, despite our appointment and permission. Because “The Government” was coming by to talk to the people, so no other activities were allowed. But thanks to Abi’s magic and her many contacts and my argument that “The Government” could talk to the kids while they were painting, we were finally allowed in.

A church group was wrapping up some activities for the kids. They were well prepared with many games and gifts (books, notebooks and pencils) and a translator. They were also kind enough to help us set up. Quite a difference with the church group from last week that immediately took over the tables and started drawing themselves so that we ended up with more grown-ups at the table than kids.

The kids were happy to see us again and enjoyed the activity. They made beautiful drawings with oil pastels that they later painted over with temperas. Of course I had to read stories, a few new ones and the old favourite ones. Then it was time for lunch and for us to leave. We will be back next week. And no, we didn’t see “The Government”.