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Home Global Activities America To Central America with Love (1998)

To Central America with Love (1998)

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In the autumn of 1998, Hurricanes Georges and Mitch swept across the Caribbean Sea, ravaging such countries as Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Dominica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Hit hard by the two hurricanes, these countries suffered severe damage to their economies and continue to be in need of foreign aid to tide them over their difficulties.

When Hurricanes Georges and Mitch swept across the Caribbean, floods and mudslides inundated roads, wiped out bridges and took a heavy toll in human lives. Millions of people found themselves isolated, without food, electricity or running water, and often without a home. The Tzu Chi Foundation has been quick to respond to these disasters. In October and November of 1998, in answer to calls for help from the affected countries, Tzu Chi sent inspection teams to Honduras, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as to the West Indies islands of Dominica, Saint Christopher and Nevis, to assess the extent of the damage and the needs of the victims. After careful investigation, the teams decided to give priority to Polo and La Romana, both in the Dominican Republic, and to Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, areas where help was scarce or late in arriving.

In order to bring assistance to the most needy areas, the inspection teams also held a series of meetings with the International Red Cross, Organization Panamericana de la Salud, and other charity organizations to discuss the distribution of relief supplies. The disaster brought damage and loss, but it also brought love. People from all over the world worked together to reduce the loss and pain suffered by the storm victims.

When Tzu Chi learned that victims were short of medical care, it immediately set up free clinics. When victims had nothing to eat, Tzu Chi distributed food parcels. When the health of the victims was threatened by poor sanitation, Tzu Chi provided necessary supplies to prevent the spread of epidemics…

In a letter to the storm victims, Master Cheng Yen wrote, "Though Taiwan is only a small country in Asia and is separated from you by the vast Pacific Ocean, we fully sympathize with you in your plight. What we bring to you is not much, but it carries the sincerest love and care of all the Tzu Chi people. We believe that through your effort and will, you will soon be able to rebuild your homes and stand up on your own again. A better, brighter future is waiting to be created by you."

Below are excerpts from reports written by Hsu Kai-yi, Lin Lu-jung and Hsieh Chin-kui, who participated in the Tzu Chi relief mission to Central America. Through their reports, we can get a glimpse into how the people in the affected areas coped with the catastrophe.

Polo, Dominican Republic
On November 3, 1998, our inspection team arrived in Polo. Local people welcomed us warmly and showed us around. A month had passed since the hurricane hit, but no help had as yet arrived for the victims of this area. "We seem to have been forgotten by the government," the villagers sighed.

When we walked into a "house" built of cardboard, an awful stench engulfed us. Repelled by the foul odor, a local Taiwanese businessman who was accompanying us on our inspection tour stopped at the door and said, "Only kind people like you are able to walk through this door."

The hilly terrain of Polo made it susceptible to natural disasters. Another village situated in a valley, for example, was entombed by rocks and mudslides during the onslaught of the hurricane. Thirty-four people were killed and more than one hundred families were left homeless. The victims were still living in local public schools, which had served as temporary shelters since the storm. As a result, there were no classes for the children. The people desperately needed outside assistance to help them build new homes.

Besides dealing with the housing problem and the lack of clean water, electricity, food, medical supplies, job opportunities, and education, the people in Polo had to tackle a host of other problems that are hard for us to imagine.

La Romana, Dominican Republic
Hurricane Georges first made landfall on the island at La Romana. The destruction brought about by the storm can only be imagined--countless houses fell prey to the battering winds and rains, causing thousands of families to lose their homes and loved ones.

The Tzu Chi inspection team visited a public garbage dump located on a hilltop. As we understand it, Tzu Chi was the first aid organization to tour this place after the ravages of the storm. Around the dump lived thousands of illegal immigrants from Haiti, who subsisted on the garbage. Most of their houses, all built of materials collected from the dump, were reduced to tatters by the storm. The life of these immigrants, which had been harsh enough to begin with, worsened to a degree hard to imagine.

At dusk when it turned chilly, team members saw children wearing next to nothing shivering in the cold. A group of mothers with their children in tow roamed the trash heaps in search of anything edible or useful.

After a while, a truck loaded with garbage drove up to the dump. The faces of the local people brightened up at the sight and they began to swarm towards the truck, hoping to find food in the fresh garbage. Even pigs and dogs--all skin and bones--an right behind.

Because of such unhealthy living conditions and hunger, the people were afflicted with various ailments: diarrhea, rheumatism, arthritis and skin diseases were common. The bulging bellies of the children were evidence of malnutrition and serious health problems. Inadequate medical and food supplies and lack of clean water and proper shelter were all problems that the local population had to deal with.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Tegucigalpa is divided by the Choluteca River into eastern and western areas. Government buildings and many luxurious residences are located in the west, whereas the eastern area (Conmayaquela) is inhabited by low- and middle-income wage earners and the poor.

Our inspection team explored the eastern area, where the dilapidated houses along the streets were covered with mud and rocks left behind by the floods. Since public order, already undermined by poverty, had been further aggravated by the hurricane, armed soldiers and policemen responsible for maintaining order were everywhere. As we walked further into this area, the stench of decaying corpses pervaded the air. Disaster workers were digging into piles of rubble, trying to find dead bodies. Several vultures circled in the sky, adding a ghastly atmosphere to this ill-fated place.

When we crossed a bridge, we found that the muddied flood waters beneath it had not yet receded. Residents said that garbage downstream had stopped the flow of the river, and they believed that there were still corpses to be found in the river. Since this region had not yet been disinfected, residents still had to face outbreaks of water-borne diseases.

As planned, we came to two temporary homes called "Infop" and "Tomas Alvarez," which were overcrowded with more than four thousand storm victims. Fear and pain were plainly written on the face of Maria, a sixty-four-year-old inhabitant, as she recounted what happened during that night. "On October 31, 1998, at two in the morning, the whole community I lived in suddenly collapsed. Three streets disappeared in a second and about sixty houses were buried." Her three grandsons were killed in the disaster.

Inquiring into the needs of the inhabitants, the team members found that clothes for children, diapers, vitamins, canned food and medicine were badly needed. We also explored the possibility of setting up free clinics.

The next day, through the arrangement of the R.O.C. embassy in Tegucigalpa, we visited the Honduran Ministry of Public Health to discuss how to help with local sanitation problems, and the Ministry of Public Construction and Housing Planning to discuss how to help rebuild the affected areas. The officials were very grateful to Tzu Chi for helping with the reconstruction of their country.

Taking action
After the inspection tours, Tzu Chi immediately organized and carried out relief action to help the victims. Free clinics were set up to offer medical care to the victims. Relief supplies were collected, purchased, packaged and transported to the stricken regions. Tzu Chi volunteers then personally distributed the relief supplies to the victims. Some people in the affected areas put on their Sunday best--which was nonetheless old and worn--to come to the distribution sites and receive the supplies. When the volunteers asked them if the food supplies were too heavy, they answered, "This food is going to save our families, so how can we possibly think it's heavy?" Local government officials also expressed their gratitude to Tzu Chi, saying that they were very surprised to see people willing to travel halfway around the globe to help them.

In fact, the people who benefited the most from the relief action were not the victims, but the Tzu Chi volunteers who participated in the mission. They were grateful to have had this chance to help. Fu Yu-kuang, a Taiwanese businessman in the Dominican Republic, said, "I have learned from the relief action that giving without asking for anything in return is the happiest thing in the world." Volunteer Chang Tsuanen from the Tzu Chi Long Island Branch in the United States said, "I never knew what suffering was until I saw the eyes of a hungry child. At that moment, I wished I could give all I had to the people in need. When I held out a handful of candy to local children, I knew my life was going to be different from then on."

To be able to give is indeed the happiest thing in the world. Disaster might bring death and pain, but as long as people are willing to give and help, love can certainly soothe the pain.


Written by Hsu Kai-yi,
Hsieh Chin-kui, and Lin Lu-jung
Compiled and translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Source: Tzu Chi Quarterly Spring 99

 
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Jing-Si Aphorism

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