William Swetcharnik

News from Las Pilitas, 4 November 1998

Sara and I would like to thank all who have expressed their concern about our well-being in Honduras. Thank God, we have been able to maintain a tenuous line of communication via a friend who has electricity and a phone line, where we set up our barely functioning computer. But we count ourselves fortunate to have food and shelter and a stream from which to fetch water. There are so many fallen trees there is no shortage of firewood for boiling the water. So not to worry: we are fine.

You probably know better than we the extent of this disaster. We have no television and limited access to the news. Yesterday I had to go down to the city to pay our electricity bill, which of itself is worth a digression. It is odd how the funniest circumstances occur amidst disasters: in Honduras you have to pay your utility bill at the bank, and if you are late in your payment yesterday was the due day the banks won't accept the bill; then they cut off your electricity and the only way to reestablish your service is to go to the central office of the electric company and get a boleto de reposición. But their central office was swept away by the flood. My mind boggled at the prospect that after finally fixing the line they would cut our service, and then months would pass until they could figure out how to issue my boleto de reposición so I could pay my bill and get reconnected...

After paying the bill at the bank, I went down to the river. Walking out to the jagged end of the Puente Maillol I could see up the Segunda Avenida in Comayagüela, still submerged in water. On the right side of the avenue I could see the high water mark on the third floor of the Ministry of Education. Floating at my feet I could see some illustrated stories from the Miskito region that had been produced by a consortium of indigenous groups I have worked with. Their office had been on the first floor. Further up the avenue I could see the National Art School with which I had worked for the better part of 1995, standing among floating debris. A block further up to the left of the art school was an empty sector where last week had been the house of my artist friend Gustavo Armijo. Most of the old adobe houses like Gustavo's, many of which had seen four centuries of floods sweep safely by, were swept away. All along the bridge men, women and children were fishing among the roiling muddy waters for scraps of clothing or wood. One man had fashioned a hook out of cement reinforcing bar and had tied it to a length of rope, casting it out upon the waters and hauling in pieces of flotsam. All was mud and filth and stench.

I wandered on down to Barrio Abajo and out the only remaining bridge to the south. The river had cut immense gashes out of Cerro Grande, and the cliff face was strewn with debris from avalanched shantytowns. Smoke was curling up from piles of splintered shacks. An artist walked up me and asked if I was thinking to paint the scene. I nodded mutely. "Dantéësque, isn't it?" he remarked. I nodded again. Hundreds of tiny figures swarmed along the mountain face, scavenging for food, construction materials, anything. Along my side of the river thousands more, caked in mud, were digging among the debris. In one place had been a warehouse for bottled beverages: children were carving caves in search of Coca-Cola; men were sitting with muddy bottles of beer, swaying among the smoke and sludge. I walked further down into what had been the Plaza de la Concordia, once filled with reconstructions of Mayan temples, now ruins among the ruins. A woman walked up and asked if I thought that Tegucigalpa would soon be ruins just like the old Mayan sites. This is the punishment of God, she said. How can we ever recover? It is said that Honduras is the third most corrupt country in the world. Even the foreign aid will just go to line the pockets of the rich. Finally she interrupted herself to ask if I realized how dangerous it was for me to be in that neighborhood. Didn't I know about the roving gangs?

It is starting to get late, time to look for a bus. Up next to the Plaza Central, another woman stops me. I recognize her as the director of a dance group. We greet and she tells me that she just came from a meeting of artists dancers, actors, painters, musicians who are trying to organize aid for colleagues who lost their houses, and also for families in shelters. She asks if I can help in any way.

In the midst of so much need, it is difficult to assess how best to use our own limited means. This disaster comes at a difficult time for us. During the past four years I have supported the Latin American Art Resource Project largely out of my earnings as an artist, but our own resources are nearly exhausted. The municipality of Tegucigalpa owes us money from a mural project, but with half a million refugees in the city and the mayor having died Sunday in a helicopter crash, they are unlikely to make a priority of repayment. The Honduran government is largely shut down due to infrastructure damage and fuel shortages. Most of the bridges in the country are out. Seventy five percent of the national agricultural production is ruined. The immediate death toll could reach ten thousand.

We will be trying to help, first mostly among the villages up on the mountain where we live. I hope that we will have the fortitude and wherewithal to stick this out. If we fled, we would feel that we abandoned Honduras at its worst moment since Columbus set foot in Trujillo. At this moment everyone is concerned about the immediate crisis, but someone also needs to be around to help artists and artisans get back on their feet, someone who did not run away when the going got difficult. And bread alone will not help people come to terms with the losses they have suffered. These are injuries of soul and spirit from which one only recovers in part after a meal, in part in front of a painting, in part inside some adobe church with dirt floors. Jesus said that he will wipe away the tears, but these tears will keep flowing for some time.

When I talked to the lady among the ruins I said that I was not the one to judge whether Honduras was suffering because of her own corruption: Honduras has also suffered because of the corruption of other nations. Poverty is not the only ill that a country can suffer, I added, and prosperity is no proof that all is well: just look at my own country. If Honduras can rebuild with honesty and good will, that alone will be a blessing.

Saturday morning I went out into the gray light as night gave way to day. The rain was finally dissolving into a driving mist, but the stream through our garden had become a huge, roaring torrent, tearing down through the pine trees and boulders above, cascading through our entire lower yard and portón, and sluicing through the dirt road below. The torrent raged all day, but by Sunday morning it had subsided enough to see the extent of the washout. A hundred yards further down, four giant pines had fallen across the road. No way we would make it to church this Sunday. I pulled out a shovel and pickax and started to excavate the run-off and fill the gully. Sara came out with a cup of tea she had prepared on the gas stove, and as I stood there sipping a pickup truck appeared full of campesino neighbors, all with their own shovels and pickaxes. Yolanda the schoolteacher showed up and said, "Vénganse, guys, we're on our own. The government won't do anything for us out here in the sticks: if we don't do it, nobody will." Sara went back in the house to fix a big pot of soup for everyone, and we all dug side by side, and for a while it seemed as though if we worked hard enough, we might be able to put the world right.


William (and Sara) Swetcharnik