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Friday, 20 November, 1998, 05:40 GMT
Street kid victims of Mitch
A young boy feed his sister at a shelter
A young boy feed his sister at a shelter - many children have been orphaned
By Tom Gibb in Honduras

I was in a refuge for street kids in the rundown centre of Tegucigalpa when scruffy little nine-year-old Christian was brought in. His story, rattled out in a continuous monotone, had me in tears.

Hurricane Mitch
He said he lived with his mother and 14 brothers and sisters in a shack on the edge of the capital by the River Choluteca. Normally, it is a smelly trickle of water frequented by clouds of vultures.

But the day of the hurricane, Christian described how the river changed its character. A great wave swept down through the city. Christian's house collapsed.

An 11-month old girls sleeps outside in a hammock
An 11-month old girls sleeps outside in a hammock - her mother lost everything
Without changing tone, he described how his mother's leg was shattered before she disappeared in the flood. Brothers and sisters were all carried away.

Christian went through their names. There was Luis, Maria, Frederico.....a long list. Only little Christian managed to struggle ashore.

He spent the next two weeks sleeping in a wooden box. "I cried and cried" he said. "I dreamed of my mammy".

A TV programme that moved the nation

That night, Christian went on local Honduran television. He broke down in tears. So did half of the rest of the country. The TV station was inundated with calls offering support.

He seemed to sum up what so many people have been through. It allowed them to grieve. Perhaps I thought the tragedy might also force the changes Honduras needs to prevent similar disasters in the future. The story might have a happy ending.

A bottle of Coca Cola salvaged from under a crashed truck
A bottle of Coca Cola salvaged from under a truck - mudslides buried people alive
Because the destruction of Hurricane Mitch was not just an act of nature - the death of Carmalinda Bonmier's three daughters shows that.

Carmalinda was a survivor of the last big hurricane 24 years ago, called Hurricane Fifi. Her house by the river was then washed away. After spending months in a tent, she and others illegally occupied land in the steep hills overlooking the city.

When the rains of Hurricane Mitch started, Caramalinda had gone into town leaving her three smallest daughters with her grandfather. Firemen came to the house telling everyone to evacuate because of the danger of mudslides. But her grandfather was stubborn and he refused.

Carmalinda came home to find the house buried under mud - the firemen digging out the bodies of her daughters.

Cause of death: poverty

The simple answer is that Carmalinda's family should not have moved there after Hurricane Fifi. Neither should hundreds of thousands of others who have been living in the flood areas of Honduras' multitude of rivers. But they are trapped by poverty and a mess of legal corruption.

A pontoon ferry replaces the bridge destroyed by Hurricane Mitch
A pontoon ferry replaces the bridge destroyed by Hurricane Mitch
I saw it in the 1980s when Honduras was receiving hundreds of millions of dollars of US aid - some of it designed to help people like Carmalinda.

The trouble is that the Americans gave the money to buy support from the ruling class in the army. They turned the country into a base for Ronald Reagan's anti-communist crusade. It was political aid which engendered corruption.

So just outside Tegucigalpa, there is actually a whole city of 3,500 empty houses. A rich speculator had bought the land close by the source of the River Choluteca for almost nothing.

He then sold it to his friends in the state pension fund for 20 times the price. The pension fund built the houses only to find that the sewage would pollute the entire city's water supply. So for the last nine years, the houses have been empty.

Better government needed

Honduras, I have been told by many Hondurans, does not only need aid money now, it needs better government. To be fair, since US aid dried up at the end of the Cold War, this has started to happen but it still has a long way to go.

The lesson was brought home most strongly when I heard the truth of little Christian's story. After bringing the nation to tears, he admitted that in fact he had never had a home. He cannot remember his mother. His father is in jail and he never had any brothers and sisters.

He is one of hundreds of street kids sleeping rough in the market area which was washed away in the flood. For 10 days he has assimilated all the stories of death and destruction and he saw that these made people care.

Christian wanted someone to care about him so he made up his own story.

My first reaction was that he had been lying but on reflection he has been merely repeating what a whole country has been through and the root of his tragedy is the same.

Because of the poverty, Hurricane Mitch has left half a million homeless. Because of the same poverty Christian has never had a home.

My only hope is that Christian is not sent back to the streets because he cannot claim to be the victim of a natural disaster, only a human one.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
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The BBC's Stephen Cviic: Politics is hampering Nicaraguan relief efforts
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The BBC's Paul Welsh: Honduras fears a cholera outbreak in the next week
See also:

02 Nov 98 | Americas
09 Nov 98 | Americas
17 Nov 98 | Americas
08 Nov 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
17 Nov 98 | Americas
28 Apr 99 | Americas
19 Nov 98 | Hurricane Mitch
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