Christy Van Horn had been planning for more than a year to spend two weeks in Nicaragua to study poverty and establish relationships in a remote village.
The 25-year-old manager of the On Earth Peace Assembly bookstore in New Windsor knew in advance that Nicaragua, the largest country in Central America, was also one of the poorest.
"We were to focus on poverty -- why there are so many poor in such a rich, beautiful land," she said.
But she had not counted on Hurricane Mitch, the killer storm that struck Nicaragua three weeks before she was to arrive.
"I hadn't had time to watch TV, but I knew there was overwhelming devastation," she said. "But I didn't know what to expect."
Nothing could have prepared her for that.
"There were mudslides everywhere because of the deforestation," said Van Horn, who recently returned to New Windsor. "It looked like the mountains were bleeding. And I guess in essence, they really were. Mud trickling down everywhere. There was not a piece of land untouched. One out of every 10 people lost everything: their homes, their livestock, their crops -- even the soil with which to replace their crops."
Van Horn was part of an 11-member Church of the Brethren delegation. The On Earth Peace Assembly is a nonprofit organization sponsored by the church. The group's mission is to promote peacemaking through educational programs.
So many roads had been destroyed that getting to rural villages was nearly impossible. Most of the first week in Nicaragua, the group was confined to the capital city of Managua, where they dug latrines at a 2,000-person refugee camp.
"We were helping those unable to get down and dig -- mostly widows who had lost their husbands during Mitch," said Van Horn, who spent a year as a volunteer case manager and children's coordinator for a California homeless coalition before joining the On Earth Peace Assembly.
"They had no access to tools to do those things," she said.
Nor did they have food, except that provided by relief agencies.
"There would be lines of people when the truck would come with food supplies," she said. "They were packed together so tightly, they had their arms wrapped around each other, holding onto each other -- screaming, pushing and shoving. There was not enough food on that truck for everyone in line."
Watching people in the food lines made her feel like an intruder, Van Horn said.
"We don't want to be seen as people who just need," one of the refugees told her.
But needy people were everywhere, it seemed.
As Van Horn and her colleagues ate outside one of Managua's restaurants, children would line up behind their chairs.
"When we finished, kids would pounce on our plates, devouring everything that was left," Van Horn said. "I was stunned as I realized the desperation they face."
Her group quit work at the refugee camp by 4 p.m. each day, Van Horn said, because that was when gangs of young adults would appear.
"Being part of a group, always being with someone from the country [of Nicaragua], I felt safe," Van Horn said. "It [violence] is always a concern. But I felt safety in numbers. I was more concerned personally about disease."
With good reason. More than 300 cases of cholera have been reported in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, according to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health.
Some of the $23,000 in cash that Van Horn's group used for relief efforts was spent on fuel "so trucks could pick up the dead bodies" that had been tossed into streams or crushed on rocks in mudslides, Van Horn said.
"The death toll was 4,000 when we left. More will die of starvation," she said. "It was poverty, not the hurricane, that killed these people."
Half of Van Horn's group went to a remote village during the second week and the rest went to another. Distance was measured in time, not miles. Because of detours and washed-out bridges, it took nine hours for the group visiting Mulukuku to get there by truck. The five people in Van Horn's group took a five-hour car ride and made a two-hour hike up a mountain to get to the village of Tanmarinda.
"When we went up into the mountains, we drove through a hollow that had been 15 feet under water," she said. "The trash [left when the water receded] was as high as a telephone pole. There were clothes and debris everywhere."
The group carried supplies -- including saws, hammers and nails -- in backpacks and on five horses. A sixth horse was used to ferry weary walkers. Van Horn, who was the only woman in the troop, was offered the first ride but instead became the only person to walk the entire distance.
Immediately upon arrival, Van Horn's group was treated to a cooked meal by the villagers.
"I felt so guilty about eating," Van Horn said. "They have so little."
After dinner, they shared a worship service with the villagers.
"This was the worst disaster ever to hit them, yet the people were so hopeful," Van Horn said. "It didn't diminish their faith in God or their hope."
In the two weeks that Van Horn has been back at her bookstore job, she has been thinking about what she learned and what she would like to do next.
"I want to know more, I want to learn more," she said. "I want people to know what's going on -- how we in the United States affect the world in our everyday choices. Everything we buy comes at a price -- a price paid in human labor that's far more than we realize."
Her group's goal was to help the people they visited become more of a community committed to helping each other, she said.
"Every small step helps," she said. "I hope that we left hope -- that they know that there are people who do care."
Pub Date: 12/06/98