Returning to Guatemala Amid Destruction and Devastation
Nicole Merrill, a nurse practitioner who lived in Guatemala in 2000, returned to the country with Project HOPE to discover a completely different environment.
I lived in Antigua, Guatemala, in 2000, and came back off and on throughout the years, first for language school and then later while working in a small clinic off the Pacific Coast. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the country and the Guatemalan people, so when Project HOPE sounded the call for volunteers to join their first rotation to the country following the devastation of the Fuego Volcano, I knew I had to go.
The Fuego Volcano has affected more than 1.7 million people. Nearly 13,000 people are displaced from their homes as the volcano continues to be active, resulting in several more eruptions, lava flows, hot steam, and ash.
On my first day, I joined the Project HOPE team as we assessed the needs of the health community, visiting a mobile clinic and a burn unit at a hospital. What I saw was shocking, and so counter to my memories of the beautiful country. As we visited communities closer to the volcano like El Rodeo, we saw utter devastation. There are heaps of black ash and volcanic rocks alongside the roads, and every time the road is cleared, another rain storm or fresh ash would block another segment of the road. There is no water supply and the river that once ran clear, crisp water through the town is now black with volcanic soot and ash.
I saw children whose feet were covered in burns. I saw people in shelters and hospitals suffering from ash-related illnesses: throat infections, respiratory problems, and skin infections. I saw people packed together in a shelter, each family given a small 4x5ft area to pile themselves and their belongings.
The Guatemalan government is estimating that these people will be in shelters for three months, but it will likely be longer. Families are trying to bring everything can, whatever they were able to salvage from the destruction, so that they can make their shelter space feel a little more like home in this time of uncertainty. At night, fathers leave the shelters to guard what’s left of their homes from the looters.
At one shelter, I met a man who was with his wife and four young children. In tears, he told me how he had lost his home, his farm, and several cousins and family members. Every night, he goes back to his home, trying to pick up what he has left. His tears showcased the pain that every single person in that shelter was feeling. The new reality for them is devastating.
I’m trying to wrap my head around the Guatemala I know, and the Guatemala I see now. Seeing everyone crammed into shelters, seeing the volcanic ash everywhere, seeing all the medical attention needed — it’s shocking. But one thing I know is that Guatemalans are strong, hardworking, wonderful people. Tomorrow I’ll go to different communities and will likely see more heartbreaking situations, but I know that together we can help the country return to the beautiful place I remember.