Dear Family and Friends,
This is my third attempt at writing this reflection. Hopefully you will receive this version.
I did not write before this because last week was an especially busy week but also I needed time to "process" some of my experiences of the previous week.
As most of you know, I went again to the devastated area. This time to the city of Chincha to spend a week there in the company of five other sisters. We were responding to a call from Confer (The Conference of Religious) to give a week of service in the affected area.The others are Peruvians and all are nurses. We all found more than enough to which our preparation could respond.
We were assigned to Cristo Rey Parish, a very large parish in the center of Chincha. It is the center of distribution of all the donations that come through the Catholic Church and in particular Caritas Peru.
So a grand part of our time was spent in receiving the donations as they arrived on trucks , sorting them and then loading them again on trucks - this time to the seven parishes of the city and, of course, to the Cristo Rey Parish which is quite extensive.
The other grand part of our time was spent visiting the "ollas comunes" (common pots). Because the parish could not possibly begin to respond to the nutritional needs of the people, these "ollas" were established - one every two blocks. This means that the families in the area could organize themselves, pool their resources, little as they may be, and ask to be recognized by the parish so that they could begin to receive supplies from the parishes. The aid they are now receiving is not sufficient but, at least, it is something and it is teaching the people how to organize and help themselves. It is a sign of hope for them as well as a means of taking the first step out of the terrible situation in which they find themselves.
Many speak of their experience: "I never thought that I would be doing something like this." "We never had to keep records before and so we are having difficulty with this. (The records are the donations they receive, the amounts of food from these donations that are used each day, menus of the food prepared and distributed, amounts charged for each portion, money used to buy "extras" that are needed for the preparation of the food, amount of food that they still have, etc.). This is a first step in learning how to organize and run a small business. For many of these simple housewifes it is a real learning experience.
Others speak of the benefits of solidarity. "I never really knew my neighbors. Now we are working together and helping each other, and not just in the preparation of food." "I know see that I can do something to help others." "Together we are going to start again and come out of all this."
All speak with gratitude for what they are receiving or for what the parish is trying to do to help them.
Each day the six of us would go two by two to the different sectors of the parish. There I would concentrate on the "ollas" while the other sister, being a nurse, would seek out the sick. I almost said "in their homes" but since so many of them no longer have homes or those that do many are not safe to be living in, this would not be the correct term.
Most are living in donated tents (and many of these tents were intended for the beach or for camping in the summertime - not for the large families nor the cold nights for which they are being used.). Many are living in estereas (Esteras are woven mats - meant more for the tropics.) or in makeshift structures of any materials that happened to be around.
Because the sites where their homes were are now heaps of rubble, many of these "living quarters" are now in the middle of the streets or the sidewalks. It is , therefore, very difficult to walk down some of the streets and impossible to go in a car or a truck down other streets. Some times we had to carry donations from the corners because the truck could not get any closer to the "olla" where it wanted to go.
These living conditions are causing problems. It is never easy to live in crowded conditioins- more so now when some are still experiencing shock and trauma. Another problem is that of hygiene; cleanliness and resulting illnesses. There are many children who are sick with respiratory problems, colds, diarrhea(the water is not clean because of many broken water and sewer pipes.), skin allergies and infections because of the dirt. Adults who suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. are no longer receiving their proper medications. Those who have broken limbs because of walls falling on them need crutches to help them navigate the piles of rubble.
Some buildings are still standing but they are dangerous to be near because of the continuing after shocks which are causing more walls to fall. I skirted city hall which is on the corner of the street where the church is. The cracks seemed to get bigger and one day a huge chunk did fall. The tower of the church has cracks also (They tell me they can be repaired but ...) and one piece of the tower lays on the sidewalk in front of the church. The sacristy of the church was completely destroyed.
The church itself isn't being used for religious services at this point. It is the storage room for the donations waiting to be distributed. But this too is religious service!
Just one more sentence to sum up some of the physical conditions of the area: Someone said, "It looks like one of the European bombed out cities after World War II."
Now for some of my personal experiences with the people:
*** Several times I passed a lot where an elderly man, alone with his wheelbarrow, was cleaning up his house. I never spoke to him because he seemed so intent on his work. I wondered though what it is like to clean up one's house in this manner. Clean up now has a new meaning for me.
*** I remember the little girl of four or five years of age who was crying because her mother had gone out (Actually the mother had only gone to the corner) and the little girl was frightened "because my sister is in bed and does not talk and the earth might move again." When the mother returned, we learned that the sister had been born handicapped from birth. In the beginning the mother brought the child to Lima to John of God Hospital for the Handicapped(a three hour bus ride followed by another ride on city buses) but had to stop because of lack of money. So the child who is probably about 12 now does not receive any therapy. I have a picture of her. If I ever learn how to download the pictures from a digital camera, you will get to see her - so beautiful and always with a smile.
*** I stopped one day to visit a handicapped boy, Walter, sitting in front of what was his home. His mother and grandmother soon joined us. The grandmother had experienced the loss of her home in the mountain area during the earthquake and had come to Chincha to live with her daughter, not knowing that that home too had been destroyed.
*** Another mother of two handicapped adult children told me of her experience in the earthquake. She knew that she could not carry her two handicapped sons out of the house in time so she enfolded them in her embrace, prayed and the walls of that room did not fall!
***Another women told me a similar story. She was with her elderly mother who had Alzheimer's and can not walk. She too knew that she could not get out of the house in time carrying her mother so she stayed with her. The walls of that room cracked but did not fall either!
***Other families were not as fortunate. One mother spoke of her six year old daughter, Joanna, a student in the first grade at Fe y Alegria. The mother was working in the market at the time of the earthquake but the father was at home with Joanna. He was sleeping though before leaving for a night job and awoke when the shaking began. He tried to find Joanna but could not. He escaped but Joanna´s body was not found until several hours later.
*** I did not meet another mother but I was told her story. She is a single mother with two small boys. Since she is alone, she has to work so she would lock the boys in the house when she went to work. She was working when the quake occurred. The boys were buried in the same coffin because there were not enough coffins available at that time because of the huge number of deaths in the area. Seven children died who were in Fe y Alegria, the school I mentioned.
***I recall the man I met who was trying to hammer (with a rock since he had lost all his tools buried in the rubble) a small pot into a usable shape. It had been smashed under a wall. Pots and other cooking utensils are some of the donations which are arriving slowly but are greatly needed. Among the other donations are: stoves, medicines, blankets, sleeping bags, diapers, clothing.
I could go on much longer but I think you can see the picture. The first step of just being alive has passed. Shelter and food - poor and limited as they are - have been found. Now it is the clean up stage. I only saw a bulldozer twice during the week I was there and this was in the center of the city. What are they doing on the outskirts?.
After that it is the future. Where and how can the people "resurrect" from all this. They have a wonderful spirit - I was so impressed by their determination, optimism and energy - which, hopefully will be sustained by their mutual support and solidarity as well as that of people like yourselves.
Let me conclude with a story that I heard yesterday. Saturday was the one month anniversary of the earthquake. I was not there but I was told that the "ollas" in Pisco decided to celebrate the event in this manner: Half of the "ollas" were to cook one part of the meal. The other half were to cook the other part of the meal. Then they all would come together in the main plaza of Pisco and put the two halves together and thus share the meal - a symbol of their unity in the midst of this destruction and suffering.