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See also NCC News: "CWS, Ecumenical Partners Reach 14,500+Families in El Salvador"

EDITOR’S NOTE: Funds for humanitarian response in El Salvador following the earthquake may be sent to:

Church World Service, Attn. El Salvador Earthquake
P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515
Phone Pledges/Credit Card Donations: 1-800-297-1516 x222
On-Line Contributions:

January 22, 2001, SAN SALVADOR – Church World Service Emergency Response information officer Chris Herlinger and David Barnhart of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, traveling together in El Salvador Jan. 16-22, met some of the estimated 263,000 Salvadorans displaced by the earthquake – and began to put faces on the numbers:

"Days of travel to different parts of El Salvador confirm that the scope of the earthquake’s devastation was far wider than first thought," commented Herlinger.

Armenia: The Aguilars and Their Neighbors

Some cities, such as Armenia in the Sononate department (province) in western El Salvador, were isolated for days by damaged roads. In Armenia one week after the January 13 earthquake Brenda Baires Aguilar and her father, Carlos, were still searching for items that could be salvaged. A cherished table for Aguilar's daughter was all that could be found.

Meanwhile, Aguilar's neighbors in Armenia expressed a refrain heard throughout El Salvador: that the response of the national government was slow, patchy and plagued by inefficiency and favoritism. Such complaints have put added pressures on international agencies and coordinating bodies, such as the ecumenical Action by Churches Together (ACT) alliance, of which Church World Service is a member, to respond to poor communities with little political clout or power.

Usulutan: Carlos Antonio Aparacio, Ana Cristina Chevez and Family

One such community is San Francisco Javier, in the eastern department of Usulutan, where there are large pockets of destruction that are not immediately apparent though the dirt roads are lined with residents who anxiously, and sometimes angrily, query visitors about when help is on the way.

Up one road is the family of Carlos Antonio Aparacio, Ana Cristina Chevez and their three children, aged 5 to 21. The family's brick home is now a dry, skeletal heap of stone and cement; in the week since the "earth felt like it was jumping," as Aparacio describes it, the family has recovered little. The Aparacios now sleep protected only by a patchwork of plastic sheeting and wood. Aparacio, a poor farmer, said he expects nothing from the government and believes his "only hope" will come from other sources.

A truck sent by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) from Honduras just arrived in El Salvador bringing tents and plastic sheeting for temporary housing. Omar Quintanilla, coordinator of ACT-Lutheran World Federation in Usulutan, said rebuilding houses in rural areas throughout Usulutan will be the most important priority for ACT. In the initial emergency phase, ACT-LWF is providing assistance to more than 800 families in the region, with food provisions and plastic sheeting. Quintanilla hopes eventually that such assistance can be provided to some 2,000 families in all.

The reconstruction work, Quintanilla said, will be done with full community participation in the kind of projects, he said, in which communities "feel empowered by the experience."

That may not be easy. The complaints about favoritism stem from allegations that the governing ARENA party has favored its supporters with material assistance following the earthquake in an unfortunate legacy of a bitter and violent decade-long civil war that ended in 1991 and cost some 75,000 lives. "We have a very clear vision," said Quintanilla of the ecumenical community’s response. "We cannot work with people who will not allow community participation."

San Salvador: Pedro Ramos Mena

Politics and the weight of history are all part of the challenges; so are sheer numbers. There are at least 263,000 displaced persons in the country. Among them, Pedro Ramos Mena, a 70-year-old gardener now living in a camp for the displaced of some 7,000 and growing -in the Cafetalon soccer stadium on the edge of San Salvador.

A sign "Casa Pedro" greets visitors, as does Mena's dog, Canello. Mena's only request is a cane for his arthritic legs and for better quarters: he does not feel secure at night with the dropping temperatures and so many people wandering around.

"I am waiting," he said, "for God to give me a partial landing."

Santa Eduviges: Concepcion Cruz de Climaco

Residents of Santa Eduviges near San Salvador had to flee quickly in the hours after the earthquake and are almost certain not to return to their homes.

Their temporary home is on the grounds of the Salvadoran Lutheran Synod in Santa Tecla, just outside of San Salvador. Some 300 people are now housed there, and are receiving shelter, daily meals and medical care. Programs for children are also being held.

Among those living at the center are Concepcion Cruz de Climaco, three of her children and three of her grandchildren. Now awaiting the return of her husband, a coffee plantation worker, she recalls the earthquake as "a terrible thing" that still traumatizes the children a week later, "waking them up suddenly in the middle of the night."

Climaco said she has no hopes of returning to her home since it was perched dangerously on a hillside. She took only clothing with her and assumes all of the items in the house have been lost. "I just hope things can eventually be better for my grandchildren," she said. "All we want is a humble home to raise the children without any danger."

CWS and its ecumenical partners are focusing their assistance on Salvadorans who were already vulnerable before the earthquakes and mudslides that swept their country beginning January 13, and to those living in the country’s poorest communities.


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