By Mario Torres and Sophia Dow, Project Directors (with excerpts of reports from staff members)
On January 24, 2000, some of the Healing Colombia team members were preparing to travel to another city when suddenly the earth began to move. It continued for what seemed to be an eternity! The ground roared, the house shook and creaked, various things broke in the house, and roof tiles started shattering. We’ll never forget the experience.
We soon learned that the earthquake had killed hundreds of people in the neighboring city of Armenia. Thousands were missing and many more were homeless. It was clear that the survivors needed as much help as possible, so we loaded up our two vans and set off.
As we entered Armenia, we were shocked at the scene before us. Three-quarters of the city had been destroyed and 90% of its inhabitants were homeless. Over one thousand people had died and many more were injured, some of whom were still trapped under the rubble. An appalling stench hung over parts of the city. Twisted metal, smashed cars, and demolished buildings were everywhere. Sirens wailed. Survivors wandered through the ruins, dazed, confused and distraught.
We started looking for representatives of the Red Cross and other relief organizations in order to volunteer our services. Things were very chaotic. The hospital as well as the main police station had been severely damaged. The main fire station and all its equipment was destroyed. Most of the doctors and rescue workers we met were in near shock themselves. Volunteer relief workers were beginning to arrive from around the world, but they weren’t organized yet. Local survivors and individual volunteers from surrounding towns still bore the brunt of the rescue and relief operation.
We eventually met a local Red Cross worker who needed a vehicle, so we offered him the use of ours. He introduced us to the Red Cross coordinator, who gratefully accepted our offer to help. Our first assignment was to fill our van with relief supplies and distribute them to the most needy areas of the city. We continued doing this until nightfall. At that point we were advised to leave the city as bands of thieves were descending on the town, robbing the poor earthquake survivors of what little they had left.
In the days that followed we based out of the main distribution center near the airport. We were integrated into the administration of the supplies and given responsibilities that included deciding where and when truckloads of supplies should be sent for distribution.
We also had time to deliver supplies personally. We went from house to house and tent to tent, giving out food and water along with prayers and words of love, faith, and comfort. We also encouraged the relief workers, as well as the soldiers who had been deployed to keep order and protect us. Some people seemed to appreciate the prayers more than anything. Many people thanked us for taking time to show them love and personal concern. They said trucks would sometimes come to their neighborhoods and simply dump the food and other supplies and then leave. This lack of organized distribution meant that the weaker, slower survivors seldom got any of the supplies.
At the time of this writing, some time has passed since the earthquake. The chaos has subsided. Each neighborhood has formed communal centers with communal dining rooms. About 70% of the population are living in "cambuches," huts with plastic sheets for roofs. Some of the communal centers have asked us to counsel and give spiritual orientation to the survivors to help them overcome the trauma that they have experienced. We have initiated group therapy sessions with workshops based on the Bible and other uplifting publications. These people need strength and faith to leave their despair behind and start over, rebuilding their lives.