By Anneli Tolvanen
MANAGUA — November 2 is the Day of the Dead in Nicaragua, when the cemeteries fill with family members decorating the graves of their loved ones. The day could not have begun with more disturbing scenes of death. The worst fears of the mayor of Posoltega, a rural community in the western department of Chinandega, were coming true.
Saturday morning when she reported the landslide on the slopes of Cerro Casita, caused by several days of non-stop rain brought by hurricane Mitch, she estimated the cost in lives at about 1000.
President Arnoldo Alemán's reaction was that she was alarmist and that the radio station was sensationalising and exaggerating the extent of the disaster. But with 850 cadavers recovered so far from the mud that buried four communities, three days of national mourning were announced on Sunday evening.
One woman's story spoke to the tragedy repeated a hundred times over in this small community. Like many Nicaraguans, she had left to find work in Costa Rica and sent money home to her family. When news reached her, she came to look for her family in Posoltega and found that they had all been killed by the landslide. She lost four children, her parents, nieces, nephews and a brother.
More than 140 people have been rescued from the landslide. From their hospital beds they now send desperate pleas to the government to send aid and lament how late the rescue efforts began. One of these survivors lost a total of 35 family members.
Criticism of President Alemán has grown more severe. He has been accused of not doing enough to alert communities. When unusually heavy and prolonged rains hinted at what was to come, the official response was that this was normal for this time of year and that there was no need for concern.
The government's response has been characterised as irresponsible and insensitive, attempting to minimise the severity of the situation.
Vice-president Enrique Bolaños, in a press conference Sunday, evening reassured reporters that there was no shortage of food despite the fact that many communities, such as Estelí, El Sauce and Achuapa, had been without food for up to three days.
Such statements seem particularly ill timed, occurring during a visit to Nicaragua of a delegation of the UN World Food Program.
Another surprising reaction was Alemán's rejection of an offer of a team of 13 medical specialists from Cuba, complete with equipment and medicines. Alemán simply dismissed the offer with the claim that Nicaragua has enough doctors.
This stance has been criticised by Cardinal Obando y Bravo. It is argued that international medical delegations have always been welcome and needed in Nicaragua even when the situation has not as critical as at present. Communities are bracing to face serious health problems.
Monday afternoon desperate calls for food were being aired on the radio from Estelí, which has not received any material aid. "We are children of God, not children of animals — to be treated this way", came the message over the radio.
In Las Lomas in the municipality of Malpaisillo, a family of four in a tree still waits to be rescued. The youngest child, only one and a half years old, is strapped to the tree to prevent falling. The family stays alive on food bags that are thrown to them from rafts, but strong currents have not yet permitted their rescue.
Many groups are gathering food and clothing for the communities they've seen on TV reports. A telethon has been aired for several days to collect material and financial donations.
Access, however, continues to be the greatest challenge in bringing aid. The military has only five helicopters at its disposal, although it was recently announced that the United States will provide cargo helicopters.
The first truckloads of aid gathered by Red Cross and by the telethon headed out Monday for the community of Posoltega. The military, meanwhile is putting temporary bridges in place but has only seven of them.
Contrasting with the outpouring of aid from fellow Nicaraguans is the attitude of some who are taking advantage of the situation to turn a profit.
Prices of basic foods are rising steeply. Rice, normally at 3 córdobas a pound, is suddenly selling as high as 12 córdobas.
The minister of agriculture, Mario DeFranco, explains that prices are rising because of isolation and profit-hungry merchants, not because of a shortage. The first harvest period was very successful, which means that a surplus exists.
Even the tragedy of Posoltega offers a chance for profit in selling alcohol to grieving family members. Measures are being taken to control this abuse with fines and a monitoring of the situation by the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights.