Ciudad Vieja & Escuintla, Guatemala – Careful not to wake her sleeping children, Norma Ascon quietly got ready for work before dawn on a Sunday like any other one year ago. As she left their house in the Guatemalan village San Miguel Los Lotes, Ascon was unaware it would be the last time she would see them.
A year later, her 14-year-old daughter Damaris Julissa Castillo Ascon and her 15-year-old son Lester Fabian Castillo Ascon are still buried somewhere under the metres of volcanic ash, rocks, and debris that obliterated San Miguel Los Lotes, a village 60km from Guatemala City.
“I do not even have anywhere to go to lay down a bouquet of flowers,” Ascon told Al Jazeera. “It hurts.”
Another 229 people are still missing and presumed dead, and their relatives have been fighting for a year to find them.
Ascon lost 33 relatives that day, but only the remains of 22 were found. Her two children, father, grandfather, a sister, and six other relatives are still missing.
“Few of us are left,” she said of her family.
Heightened volcanic activity began earlier in the day, and some neighbouring communities had been alerted and evacuated.
Although there was enough time for authorities to evacuate San Miguel Los Lotes, Ascon said, orders were not given until it was too late. San Miguel Los Lotes became the “ground zero” of the disaster.
The village was engulfed by pyroclastic flows, dangerous mixtures of volcanic rock, hot gases, and solidified lava that can travel hundreds of kilometres per hour and reach several hundred degrees centigrade.
Plumes of ash shot several kilometres into the air, affecting 1.7 million people across several departments and forcing the airport to shut down.
Ascon could not go home. The military restricted access to the area for evacuation, search and rescue efforts.
But the volcano was still erupting, and it also claimed the lives of two firefighters, a police officer, and a representative of CONRED, Guatemala’s National Coordination for Disaster Reduction.
Surviving San Miguel Los Lotes, residents spent their days searching for shelters and hospitals for their loved ones.
Ascon found her mother, Aura Cristina Acajabon, in a Guatemala City hospital with severe burns on her arms. The mother and daughter now rent a room together in Ciudad Vieja, a town just outside Antigua, a colonial city and popular tourist destination just to the north of the affected communities.
Survivors then spent their days searching for the remains of their loved ones, and those days stretched into weeks and months.
The government had shut down search and rescue efforts after 72 hours, and the unsanctioned search efforts by locals and supporters that followed became a point of tension and conflict.
Search for dead continues
Sofia Letona never expected to be digging up the dead. A book editor and translator, she was simply one of dozens of Antigua residents who gathered in the city plaza with donations for affected communities.
Letona showed up to find heaps of donations and dozens of willing volunteers, but no one to coordinate aid efforts.
She helped form a core group, later named Antigua Al Rescate, to take on volunteer and logistics coordination.
They organised shelter and food support for the displaced, donation transport to affected communities, and medical brigades, and are still active in support work.
“None of us knew each other. We met on June 3,” Letona told Al Jazeera.
Not long after, Ascon approached Letona to ask for help finding her missing children. San Miguel Los Lotes residents were using shovels and even their bare hands to continue the search for their loved ones.
No one in the Antigua Al Rescate group had any experience in the field, but they agreed to do what they could to help.
“We decided to do it because there was no other option. We decided to do it because it was surreal that no one was searching,” Letona said.
The government had declared the area unsafe, the highway was still buried, and no machinery was allowed in.
But if the area was safe enough for equipment and workers to clear the highway, it was safe enough for equipment and volunteers to help the adjacent community search efforts, Antigua Al Rescate members reasoned.
Volunteer brigades left Antigua in the middle of the night to detour for access and rent the excavators and equipment already on site to clear the highway, using the machinery for two hours in the early morning before the highway work began.
When they climbed back out of a second home they had helped excavate, they found a line of residents all asking for help.
In one home, they found an intact scene of a grandmother holding the door closed to protect her two grandchildren.
Elsewhere, they found bits and pieces of charred flesh and bones. They only found the bottom half of one of Ascon’s uncles, identified by a shoe and his phone.
They tracked down the material cleared off the highway and dumped elsewhere and picked through it to find the human remains discarded as trash.
“The government placed more importance on the highway,” said Ascon.
“Those injustices that were committed are painful,” she said. “It was as though we are people who do not matter.”
The government kept trying to restrict the autonomous search efforts, issuing deadlines and threatening legal action against equipment contractors, successfully scaring them out of working in the area. But Ascon and other San Miguel Los Lotes survivors kept at it, organised protests, blocked the highway off and on for weeks, and pressured officials in the capital. Eventually, their efforts paid off.
The 2019 budget bill passed by Congress last December included the assignment of about $650,400 to CONRED for the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, FAFG, to carry out the exhumation and forensic investigation of Fuego volcano victims.
FAFG, a non-governmental institution known for its work exhuming victims of military atrocities committed during the 1960-1996 civil war, signed an agreement with CONRED in March.
A specific date has not yet been set, but CONRED spokesperson David de Leon told Al Jazeera exhumation work is expected to begin in four to six weeks.
Just as many victims have not yet been located, many survivors await relocation. Last year, more than 12,000 people from several communities were evacuated. As of February, there were still 2,000 people in shelters, according to CONRED.
Some moved elsewhere, but most displaced residents are still living in temporary housing in Escuintla, a city south of the affected communities.
The simple wooden structures many have called home for 10 months initially lacked water and electricity, but access to basic services has gradually expanded.
A short walk from the temporary structures, there are brightly painted cement block homes and a playground where children play near a monument commemorating the tragedy.
The small two-bedroom homes are the first 168 of 1,000 to be built as part of a government programme to relocate residents of the most heavily affected communities.
The “Dignity Project” costs more than $23m. It is set to be completed by November 2019, according to the Guatemalan government.
In May 2019, the government began to issue deeds to the first group of residents. Some moved in last month, while Ofelia Sican and others are awaiting the opportunity to occupy their new homes.
“I feel happy and thankful because we are going to recuperate a little bit of what we lost,” Sican told Al Jazeera, in an alleyway between the temporary housing.
It is still unclear when she will be able to move into her new home, but she believes it will happen this month.
Sican, 45, was born and raised in San Miguel Los Lotes, but at the time of the eruption she was living elsewhere. She was one of the few to not lose any family members in the eruption, but she lost many of the people she grew up with.
The new homes may only be a little more than 22km from where they once resided, but the heat in lowland Escuintla compared to their highland communities of origin and the initial lack of services affected survivors of the eruption.
“It is difficult to adapt to this place,” Sican told Al Jazeera.
“At the beginning there was no water,” she said. “It was a little uncomfortable.”
Although Sican and other families have been assigned housing, many others, like 57-year-old former San Miguel Los Lotes resident Paula Lopez, continue to wait their turn.
“Who knows how long we will have to wait,” Lopez told Al Jazeera.
While San Miguel Los Lotes residents await housing, residents of communities not displaced from the slopes of the volcano face risks beyond future eruptions.
The rainy season has begun and with it comes the danger of lahars, fast-moving mudflows of water and volcanic debris.
“It is always a latent risk,” CONRED spokesperson David de Leon told Al Jazeera.
“There have already been at least 10 lahars,” he said, though so far they have been relatively minor.
For Ascon, she worries the rains or a lahar could wash away her children’s remains and make them harder to find.
“That is what we as survivors think about when we see the rain,” she said.
Although Ascon tried going back to work after the two-month leave her employer gave her last year, she became too paralysed with anxiety at the thought that her children might be found when she was not there while local search efforts were under way.
She plans to be on site during FAFG’s exhumation work, and is anxious for a concrete start date.
“I am hopeful about the search they will carry out,” she said.
Source: Al Jazeera