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Sunday, November 8, 1998 Published at 19:08 GMT

Mitch hits poor hardest

With no electricity, salting is the only way to preserve meat

By David Loyn in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Within an hour of arriving in Honduras, I was aware of my rather rumpled appearance as I sat talking to refugees from the worst hurricane to hit the country for more than quarter of a century.

[ image: Ruins in Tegucigalpa - a set-back by 50 years]
Ruins in Tegucigalpa - a set-back by 50 years
They had lost everything and were living in potential squalor with no future, but they were still better turned out than me and I was struck, as I have been before, by the unfailing courtesy of the very poor.

It is a week now since Hurricane Mitch tore through Honduras, in Central America, but the country's president, Carlos Flores says it has set it back by 50 years.

Whole villages have been washed away, almost all the country's crops have been destroyed, and most of the road network, too. But it is becoming clear that it is the poor who have been hardest hit of all.

New Hope of the poor

We sat and talked by candlelight - no hardship to them, although they had recently persuaded the authorities to put electric light and running-water into their colony on a cliff-top, which has grown over the last 20 years.

[ image: Downtown Tegucigalpa - the smell of rotting debris]
Downtown Tegucigalpa - the smell of rotting debris
A community with the optimistic name of Nueva Esperanza - New Hope. The people from New Hope are living in a school now, 20 to 30 people to a room, but already the school authorities are restless. They want them to move on. Charity has lasted just a week.

The poor have only one real strength: In a democracy there are more of them, and each of their votes weighs as heavily as the vote of a millionaire. So the business of politics matters greatly for the poor, as this former banana republic tries to turn its back on its unstable military past and opt for democracy.


The main Honduran aid organisation is closely connected to the army, as is one of the country's main banks. The poor suspect the links are a way of siphoning-off dollars meant for them.

There is only one politician they talk about with approval in the new refugee camps. He was known as El Gordito, the Little Fat One. He was the mayor of Tegucigalpa and a man talked of as a future president.

But in a wretched twist of fate, the Little Fat One was killed in a helicopter crash while surveying the flood damage.

On the other side of the tracks, in a city where the night sky lights up a statue of Jesus and a huge Coca-Cola sign, my guide drove a Mercedes and carried a pistol in his back pocket. He was angling for an American doughnut franchise to add to the familiar world brand-names which jostle for attention in downtown Tegucigalpa.

Honduran doughnuts

What is wrong with Honduran doughnuts, I asked him, and for an answer I got a tirade about the general hopelessness of his country. The only two shops selling doughnuts could not do it properly, he said. And he said the corruption from the drugs industry was ruining Honduras.

His family had made their money honestly, he believed, but he knew of other young men who became rich, in his phrase, "as day turned to night". But he had a special venom for the poor. He said he had heard that they were complaining in the refugee camps about the standard of the food. It is a rich man's rumour.

Back at the school where the people from New Hope had taken refuge, I gradually became aware that everyone in the room had lost a close relative. The witnesses came like ghosts out of the shadows into the pool of candlelight, one by one, in their clean, bright clothes, to tell their stories.

The berieved

One woman clutched the grandchild she saved from the waves. One of her daughters and a sister are dead. Another, called Maria, lost five members of her extended family, and Pedro Lopez lost his wife and four children.

He wept as he remembered how they cried out "Father! Father!" as they were trapped under rocks after they had tumbled down the mountain. He was trapped too and could save only himself as the waters rose.

So why did the tragedy kill so many in a country which was already so poor? Pedro Lopez has the answer - it was the poverty which killed them. If the authorities cared, if he had been richer, he would not have lived literally on the edge, on a cliff-top which collapsed under the force of the hurricane.

All that is left of his house now is one wall. When we opened his front door, it opened onto nothing and we could see across the valley to the Tegucigalpa country club.

The golf club greens were being freshly mown. They had taken a little too much water in the past week.

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