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Wednesday, November 18, 1998 Published at 22:37 GMT

Mitch: Picking up the pieces

Philipa Thomas, her team and Nicaraguan Mosquitas Indians

BBC Correspondent Philipa Thomas spent last week witnessing first hand the devastation of Hurricane Mitch - and the efforts to pick up the pieces.

The effects of Hurricane Mitch are still being felt in Central America.

Thousands of people have died, tens of thousands are homeless, and in the worst hit regions - in Honduras and Nicaragua - many are still in danger of going hungry or thirsty, or of contracting disease.

[ image: On ship with two Royal Marines]
On ship with two Royal Marines
Last week, I saw the terrifying impact of the storms in and around the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa.

In the city, entire neighbourhoods had been swept away by a churning wall of mud, normally a placid river.

Roads had collapsed. Schools were closed. The water supply was contaminated. Dirt, still, is everywhere.

Risilience through the horror

But also - everywhere - I saw women washing.

Outside the capital, the brightest spots on the landscape were always lines of clothing, often childrens' T-shirts - red, blue and green.

Women stretched out their laundry to dry on upturned flagstones and on the branches of fallen trees, on anything that stood clear of the mud.

I was the casual observer dropping by, a journalist with easy access to water, and a place to sleep at the end of the day.

They had none of that. They were just getting on with it.

They seemed immensely resilient - accustomed to the horrors of hurricane season, adapting even to the most destructive floods in living memory.

British military help

I did not see the worst - the bodies being dredged up from the dirt, single survivors who lost their entire families in the violence of the storm.

I did see the positive side - the aid beginning to roll in.

Last week, I travelled with several hundred British marine commandos south from Belize to one of the worst hit areas - Nicaragua's Mosquito coast.

[ image: Troops on the ground used simple English]
Troops on the ground used simple English
We knew that the international aid agencies had already begun to mobilise, that countries from the US and Mexico to the UK and Japan had already begun to send money.

But there was a massive logistical problem.

Sacks of grain and boxes of medical supplies were being off loaded in the capital cities, in major ports, on airstrips where they could be ferried up river.

The difficulty came once the forward base had been established. How to get out to the dozens of villages way upriver, or out in the middle of the jungle?

That's where the British military helped - a small but significant contribution.

I witnessed part of a major operation - the landing ship Sir Tristram bringing the men down south to the Mosquito Coast, to join forces with the navy's newest carrier HMS Ocean, the base for a constant convoy of helicopter traffic.

We flew back and forth on Lynx and Sea King helicopters, as they picked up supplies from the aid agencies and pushed a hundred miles or more inland over endless jungle to drop the cargo in some of the most isolated spots on the continent. Fuel was scarce. Everything had to be finely calculated.

Helicopters mean help

I spent time in two of the villages inhabited by Nicaragua's Mosquitas Indians - in both, the River Coco had burst its banks and risen, we were told, 50ft overnight.

The good news was that the villagers had seen it coming and fled to the church on higher ground.

The danger was exposure and disease.

Troops from 45 Commando group and 59 Commando group were establishing clinics for the hundreds of children, building water filters, even putting up wooden houses from driftwood salvaged in the wake of the flood.

[ image: Air support: Many roads have disappeared]
Air support: Many roads have disappeared
In both villages, people knew that helicopters meant aid.

They were working hard to communicate - one army engineer showed me a crumpled list of words that was proving invaluable - English to Mosquitas translations for "hello", "goodbye", water", "hammer" and "saw".

The aim of the search and rescue mission was strictly limited - to get in, to administer essential first aid, to get the village back on its feet, and then to leave.

I was told time and again that the military did not want to undermine the local leadership structure: when they jumped off the helicopter, the first question was - usually in sign language - Who are your leaders? Who can tell us what you need?

There is much much more left to do. There is a danger of disease epidemics - the greatest fear is cholera.

There may be dangers from landmines. They are scattered across many Central American states, and many may have been displaced by the floods.

And I guess there is a danger that after the immediate outpouring of sympathy and aid, the needs that are left will overwhelm the available resources.

But what I saw was positive: a start, a sign that the world was watching.

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Mitch: Picking up the pieces

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