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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 14:51 GMT 15:51 UK
'Buried alive in a river of mud'
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

The slopes above Guatemala's beautiful, volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan have been home to Mayan Indian families for generations.

A photo of a man and child hangs above the mud burying homes in Panabaj, Guatemala
The lakeside village has become a mud tomb for many inhabitants

But when Tropical Storm Stan brought days of torrential rain to the remote highland area, popular with Western tourists, the hillsides began to shift with devastating effect.

In the early hours of Wednesday, an avalanche of mud up to 40ft (12m) deep poured over hundreds of houses - burying their occupants within them.

Days later the extent of the devastation is only just becoming clear - and exhausted locals, no longer able to dig for bodies, have appealed to turn the area into a mass grave.

'Everyone was sleeping'

Rescuers tell how whole families in the communities of Panabaj and Tzanchaj, in the Santiago Atitlan district, were swallowed alive in their beds by a torrent of mud.

"The problem was it was in the middle of the night, everyone was sleeping," Dr Francisco Mendes Beauc, in Panabaj, told the BBC News website.

We need some antibiotics, we need some clean water and the gasoline in the town is almost finished
Dr Francisco Mendes Beauc

"Now we are receiving some support from the government and other agencies but for the first two or three days it was really bad because no-one was helping us."

Many of the 71 bodies pulled from the mud in Panabaj by Sunday evening were those of women and children, the doctor said. Hundreds more are thought to be buried deep in the slick.

To make matters worse, the continuing rain means the largely indigenous community - still cut off after damage to roads and bridges - is living in fear of another landslide.

Dr Mendes Beauc, who made his way from a neighbouring village to join the rescue efforts, said more help was urgently needed to help some 4,000 people now living in shelters.

Volunteers dig for bodies in Panabaj, Guatemala
People from neighbouring villages have joined the dig for bodies

"We need some antibiotics, we need some clean water and the gasoline in the town is almost finished," he said.

"We are also trying to find some psychological support for the victims because they are afraid of another disaster."

David Glanville, owner of the Hotel Posada de Santiago, told the BBC News website that the two-metre high (6ft) avalanche of mud had passed only 500m (550yd) from his property.

Accounts differ, he said, but people tell of small amounts of mud slipping at about midnight and 0200, before a sudden huge rush of mud 1.5km (one mile) wide poured down through the village at 0400.

The devastation has hit everyone in the community hard, he says, particularly the poorer families who built on land more vulnerable to flooding.

Children killed

"Our restaurant's cook has lost five children and one of our gardener's daughters also died. Others are safe but have lost everything, and some of them can't go home because it's too dangerous.

"It's grim but people are pulling together, people have been coming from other villages to help dig."

A woman feeds her child in a shelter at the Catholic church in Panabaj
Churches and schools have become shelters for those left homeless

He himself helped ferry survivors, all of them cold, wet and soaked in mud, through the dark to churches and schools being used as emergency shelters.

Patients were moved from the local clinic, the Hospitalito Atitlan, run by volunteer doctors from US charity Pueblo a Pueblo, to safer buildings after mud began pouring in.

Dr Bernadette Page said people were at first being treated for broken bones and wounds, but medical supplies were now urgently needed to stop the spread of disease and infections.

Many of the survivors are also showing signs of fatigue and injury after days digging with hoes and shovels with only limited food and drink.

Now as help slowly starts to arrive and the search for survivors is abandoned, the villagers must work out how to rebuild their shattered lives.

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