World

PAIN AND CHAOS

Looters run rampant after a killer earthquake strikes Colombia

TOM FENNELL February 8 1999
World

PAIN AND CHAOS

Looters run rampant after a killer earthquake strikes Colombia

TOM FENNELL February 8 1999

PAIN AND CHAOS

World

TOM FENNELL

Elda Arboleda was poor but still proud of the way she had raised her family in a tiny home in one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. Then, at 1:19 p.m. on Jan. 25, the ground shook and Arboleda’s humble world came to an end. All the houses on her street in Armenia, the capital of Colombia’s rich coffee-growing region, were destroyed by the second massive earthquake to hit the country in five years. More than 1,000 people were believed killed and 150,000 left homeless. Like so many shocked survivors, Elda’s son Elkin had rushed home to find a loved one crushed to death in the rubble. “The houses fell down like dominoes,” he said sadly as he salvaged baby pictures from the debris that killed his mother. Later, residents across the city laid the dead side by side and began a grim search for coffins, which were now in short supply. “I can’t find any,” said Diego Ruiz, 34, who lost his grandmother, sister and three nieces. “So we’re going to bury them in plastic sheets.” There were so many corpses to bury that Colombia’s government

was forced to ship new supplies of coffins to Armenia—a city that suddenly resembled a war zone. “It reminds me of Sarajevo,” said Philip Maher, a Canadian staffer with the charity World Vision. “It looks like it has been shelled.” The quake, which measured 6.0 on the Richter scale, levelled up to 80 per cent of the buildings in communities in and around Armenia, a picturesque city of 280,000 straddling a lush valley in the Andes Mountains, 190 km west of Bogotá. Initially, many survivors seemed stunned—often standing for hours in the rain by piles of shattered concrete as rescue crews tried desperately to reach victims trapped in the rubble. Others wandered the streets, eventually taking refuge in the few undamaged buildings that remained. “People are like zombies,” said Mario Gomez, an official with the National Coffee Growers Federation who was in Armenia. “They’re so afraid. They don’t quite understand the entire dimension of their tragedy.”

Experts from Britain, the United States and Japan arrived the day after the quake with sophisticated equipment to help find victims buried in the debris. Canada pledged $800,000 in emergency assistance through the Canadian International Development Agency.

Looters run rampant after a killer earthquake strikes Colombia

But the local effort to get food, water, tents, medicine and other supplies into the disaster area quickly turned chaotic. Crowds clamoured for food and water. As desperation increased, angry mobs looted supermarkets and homes, clashing with security forces. With the region on the verge of anarchy, officials airlifted in 290,000 tonnes of food and 4,000 troops in an attempt to restore order. Colombian President Andres Pastrana cancelled a trip to Europe and flew to Armenia to take personal charge of the rescue operation. Aftershocks continued to rock the city, and streets were jammed by hundreds of frightened people frantically trying to reach the airport. “They are scared and scrambling to get out,” said Maher.

As the chaos continued into the weekend, Canadian ambassador William Ross said his officials did not believe anyone from Canada was hurt in the quake. Still, 10 teachers mostly from Ontario who were working at an international private school in Armenia, were terrified. ‘We ran outside gripping onto each other,” said Linda d’Eon, 36, from Waterdown, Ont. “It was all we could do not to cry.” After regaining his composure, Heath Hough, 28, from suburban Toronto, ventured into downtown Armenia. “It was just horrendous,” he said. “Entire rows of buildings and stores collapsed, with people still inside.” The first floor of Hough’s apartment was also destroyed, he said, and the walls in his and d’Eon’s apartments had cracks so big “you could see outside.”

The killer quake was just the latest in a long string of seismic disasters to befall the region. About 25,000 people were killed after the remote Nevado de Ruiz volcano erupted in 1985, the same year up to 12,000 died in a quake in Mexico City. The last major tremor in

Colombia killed 1,000 in 1994. Robert Turner, a research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada in Vancouver, said there are dozens of fault lines running north and south through the region. At the same time, a massive piece of the earth’s crust known as the Nazca plate is pushing eastward from the Pacific Ocean underneath the Andes. Usually, the violent collision takes place deep within the earth’s crust, preventing massive destruction on the surface. This time, Turner said, the tremor was shallower and occurred in one of the faults. “More quakes,” he added grimly, “are inevitable in Colombia.”

In Armenia, the violent shaking left hundreds of people crushed to death in the ruins of their homes. At first, neighbours and family members dug through the piles of twisted concrete and wood with their bare hands in the hope of finding survivors. For some, there were miracles: people were still being dug out alive three days after the quake hit. Most were not as fortunate. As a steady rain descended on the shattered area, Blanca Lilia prepared to bury her 29-yearold son, who died under a shower of debris. “I will never forget this day or the sadness I feel,” said Lilia as she stooped to place roses on his grave. “He leaves behind four beautiful children that he will never see again.”

There was so much death to deal with that fights broke out over coffins when suppliers hiked prices to as much as $2,200. And as hunger mounted among the homeless, so did anger. Many smashed their way into grocery stores in search of something to eat. “No food has arrived, so we’ve been forced to rob this,” said José Fernandez, while gripping his stolen merchandise. “I haven’t eaten since the quake,” he added as others lugged out crates of soft drinks, bags of potatoes and boxes of detergent. Another crowd attacked a Red Cross supply depot.

Looters were not content just to steal food. Many broke into private homes. Gangs of young men threw rocks at police and soldiers, who responded by firing bursts of automatic gunfire into the air. At night, fearful residents set up neighbourhood vigilante squads, armed with shotguns, pistols and even Molotov cocktails. “Certain people are robbing everything,” said homeowner Alexander Moreno. “We’re protecting ourselves.”

As the armed residents huddled by fires to keep warm, rescue crews continued to search for survivors by night as well as day. By week’s end, however, they had little hope of finding many more victims alive. Pastrana promised to pump $23 million in emergency aid into the region, and other officials said it could ultimately take $500 million to rebuild the shattered towns. The President asked Canada and other countries to donate millions of dollars, and urged every Colombian to donate a day’s wages to the cause. Yet no amount of money could compensate those who lost family members. “I don’t know why God is making us suffer like this,” said Inez Corre, who buried her 23-year-old son outside Armenia. “Why would He take everything away from me?” It was a question with no answer.

SUZANNE TIMMONS