12. Armero, Omayra Sanchez

Photo of Omayra Sanchez by Frank Fournier
In no time at all, you’ll be telling your life story to a complete stranger, and you’ve been around long enough to have learned that you can’t be too careful with strangers when it comes to personal matters.
JOSÉ SARAMAGO. O Homem Duplicado.

Armero. The body of a brown girl swallowed by boiling mud while everyone saw. The mountain belched its rage around midnight. The fetid spit, loaded with boiling rocks, mud, and ashes erased from the map the village and killed over two thirds of its people.This one too, as it is the case with most occurrences we call tragedies, could have been avoided. We had been warned. Geologists, experts from local and foreign institutes, and many universities had sent their findings to the government drawing a clear picture of the hell to come if nothing new was done. There were earthquakes, explosions, dust clouds bloated with gas and sulfur, columns of smoke, a rain of ashes that covered more than once the crops and roofs and the crowns of heads of the peasants. The town’s major passed on the radio saying that there was no real danger. Civil defense members went on the streets to calm the people down, to tell them, There is nothing wrong, go back home and wait for instructions.And so they did. A bright green town of dust roads, grasslands full of albino cows, gardens, and mountains, a warm river where the townsfolk bathed and played and laughed in their leisure time, which was plenty. What was left after the eruption was a pool of caked mud and tens of thousands of rotting corpses. The mountain threatened no more. It spilled its scorching guts over the town as a man who has been poisoned. The children and their mothers were asleep. The morning after was a school day. The lahar swallowed them and the beasts and the men. It also swallowed the major who announced to all that there was no real danger. Hours earlier, ash had fallen in flakes big as crows, flakes big as open hands. Every single cat in town vanished a couple of hours before. Rats, moles, snakes, and weasels could be seen roaming the street, confused. Flocks of birds flew far and high. Horses snorted and neighed worried to the marrow. Mongrels howled without a rest announcing the end to come, the end of it all. Hours earlier, the Cumanday, as the indians the europeans exterminated used to call the mountain, cried as an animal that’s been badly hurt. Cries and ashes. Not the blind nor the deaf could say they had not been warned. When the sun went down, ashes fell like never before. The few who knew better left the town on bikes, mules, and horses. One could see their mouths and noses covered with wet rags. All the rest cooked something and sat to eat and listen to the soccer game on the radio. The sporstcasters asked the Red Cross spokesperson to wait until halftime to make his announce. Just minutes after he said, you need to go now, the walls trembled and the flood covered the roads with a film of fresh mire. Many kids woke up from their dreams. Many curious ones went out to see the warm flow across their streets. The town’s priest, megaphone in hand, went out and said, Be calm, Be calm, do not Be afraid. God will save us. Fifteen minutes later he left the town alone in the church’s car. Some said they saw him, no longer a priest, in a city nearby. White noise filled the night. The avalanche came from the river named Lagunilla and went into the town split into two crawling vipers. It could think, it seemed. One snake razed the town’s only hospital, the ill and their carers, the doctors, the dying. The other one buried under layers of mud and rubble the police station and the few men and boys who could offer some relieve to the injured and a decent burial to the dead. Once they were over, they merged again into a single monster of sludge and magma and rocks and bodies that whipped with all it had the main power plant. Darkness and gloom. Thick clouds. Deep shadows. Nothing but silence. The heads of the living came above the surface looking for mouthfuls of hot air. Lungs, tongues, and skin burnt. It all tasted of sulfur. Mud got into the ears, noses, mouths, and anuses, it scorched their clothes and hair. A man wiped off lumps of mire to have a better view of Hell. Screams. Voices calling mom or dad. Voices calling children. Some asked for help. Some for water. Others not to be alone. Others only asked not to die that night. Stones large as houses, broken tree trunks, legs of cattle floating upside down, and the corpses of dogs, so many of them. The manes of the dead floated on the surface as the lilies of Monet. And then it rained. And the dead spent the night next to the dead. The cries lost strength, turned scarce. The first helicopter came as dawn broke. Half a dozen of rescuers, young men, almost kids, dressed in orange overalls and black rubber boots up to their knees. They pulled body after body after body, caked in mud from head to toe. Most of the dead were naked, raped with rage by the strenght of the avalanche. A second helicopter and a second group of rescue kids came some hours later. And then two more. And that was all. Two handfuls of children trying to save thousands of dead and living. The wait, the fear, the sorrow, the gashes, the fractures, the lack of air, costed the lives of many. The living spent too many hours buried to their necks. They cried and begged and prayed until they ran out of air. One more day had to pass before the foreign aid arrived. A couple of rescue helicopters from Mexico and Venezuela. Journalists and crew from all around the globe. The images of Omayra Sánchez with her eyes black of hemorrhage went from shore to shore. Thirteen-year old, pretty round face, skin burnt by the sun, short curly hair the tone of tar. Omayra was trapped up to her neck in mud, wreckage, bodies. The girl told the reporters and the curious that under her feet she felt the hand of her aunt still holding her tight. My dad’s too, she said, even though I am not a hundred percent sure it’s him. To extract Omayra from her prison of ooze, to save her life, there were two choices. The first was to cut her legs from the hip down and stop the haemorrhage before she bled to death. The second was to suck out the mud with a motor pump and of course, in the whole town and the ones around there was not a single one of those. When they finally found one after hours of search, it was too late. Omayra was dying. They drew out the muddy water till they found the muddy aunt. Omayra’s feet were black and purple, too much time had passed. Cut off her gangrenous little feet or let her die. It took her three days and three nights to die. Not to dismember the girl, the consensus was to cover her dead body with boards of wood and tiles of clay and leave her there, in the same slough where they found her, among the remains of her childhood home and echoes of smiles and the dead body of her aunt and perhaps the one of her father too. The media told the news of a baby who was born in a pool of mud a couple of hours after Omayra died. A miracle, an announcer said, life comes after life goes, said another. No one really cared. No one knows if the baby lived or died, or what became of him or her. Omayra was the one, their selected martyr for that night. The whole world saw a girl die a slow and painful dead, her mind give way to the pain of death, her heart and lungs followed, and the only ones to blame were all the inept citizens of the Nation. I forced myself to watch the images again three decades later. Omayra, holding a log that keeps her afloat on the faeces-colored water with abnormally white hands, stares straight into the lens with bulging eyes, the lack of sleep made the flesh of her lids swollen. The pupils float in a pool of blood. She awaits her saviors, the ones who will not come, immersed to her mouth. Omayra, Have you always lived here? Asks her a Spanish journalist. Omayra pulls her mouth from the filthy water and said yes.With your parents? Yes, sir, she says obedient. She thinks for a while, trying to wash the mud from her brain in order to remember and then says, when we, when the quake started, when that happened, the flood, my dad, my dad, my dad came.

Photo of Omayra Sanchez by Eric Bouvet

A rescuer shouts, Hey bud! we need a motor pump, bud, come, come check this out, come. The well mannered Omayra waits until the rescuer stops shouting and continues saying, My dad came looking for us, and he was left behind, he was hurt, while we tried to reach for (she pants), and she fell before me, and I fell on top of her, almost, and me, being fat as I am, almost crushed her. Omayra died of a gas gangrene. In this type of gangrene, a deep sore or wound is the open door for a swarm of bacteria to enter the body, grow and multiply, belch and consume the tissue of their host. Omayra was eaten alive. Omayra says, I live because I must, I am just thirteen. To die, I can’t. It isn’t fair. And she was right. Omayra also said, I want that when I am free, when I am free, you take me with the camera, that I am shown, victorious. And before she died she said, I want to say some words, can I? Yes, say them, answered the reporter with the Spanish accent. Mother, if you hear me, I think yo do, pray so that I can walk and these people help me. Mom. Dad loves you a lot, so does my brother, and me too. Goodbye, mother. Goodbye, Omayra. The mix of mud and magma started drying from the next day. The ones who went to bring some aid described the wastelands of Inferno. Armero. Fertile grounds bathed by the sun. Heat accelerated the putrefaction of the dead. The air reeked. The gases of decay inflated the wasted carcasses and pushed them up to the surface. Manes, hands, feet, limbs, and half-buried faces as far as the eye could see. Hogs, dogs, cats, and birds of prey rambled over the mud pecking at the open eyes, ears and fingers of the dead. Pope Jean Paul II visited the immense graveyard seven months after the end. He approached at a slow pace the point where, in the middle of it all, a colossal cross made of concrete was erected. He knelt down and while gusts of wind played with his thin hair made of snow, he prayed to his God for the souls of the dead and the living. We went through the land two or three years after the events. Twenty thousand, Father said to no one of us in particular. Twenty thousand is a number hard to imagine. Down the road Mother sighted a female hitchhiker, young, short denim pants, white long legs, a white cotton tank top covering her tiny breast. Stop the car, said Mother, she needs a ride, she might be lost. Father did as told. Mother turned her head again and said, it doesn’t matter anymore. She’s gone.

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