If there’s such a thing as hell on earth, I saw it last week in Los Lotes, Guatemala.
I stood with three of my dear friends — Orlando, Alex and Edison — in their village at the base of Guatemala’s Volcán de Fuego. It was the first time I’ve been able to gain access to the site since the village was buried under 10 to 20 feet of ash, mud, and water on Sunday, June 3.
My friends’ eyes welled up as we walked across the mountains of debris, standing just feet above those who had been buried alive — including Orlando’s wife and 8-year-old son. Between my three friends, eight of their closest family members were killed.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place where there is so much death and destruction in such a localized area. As I stood there looking around, all I could think was, “We have to do more. We have to help these families rebuild.”
Even though this tragedy is out of the news, its survivors are still dealing with the devastation it brought on their lives. Los Lotes was once a beautiful place, home to 2,000 people. Now it’s a mass grave of ash and volcanic rock. Though most public estimates put the Volcán de Fuego’s death toll around 100 people, our partner in Guatemala tells me this figure is grossly underestimated. In Los Lotes an estimated 1,500 people were buried alive and are either still missing or presumed dead.
Every house in the village has been destroyed.All that’s left to see is the top of the local school — a school Orlando’s 8-year-old son used to attend. Now the school is destroyed, and Orlando’s son is gone. Alex’s uncle is dead. And Edison suffers physical as well as emotional scars from the worst day in Los Lotes’ history. In the middle of the mayhem, he was shot and may lose sight in his right eye.
I have traveled to Guatemala countless times to deliver humanitarian aid. But this tragedy was personal for me. I’ve known these men for many years; they are some of my best friends. Every time I come to Guatemala, I spend time with them and work alongside them. And it breaks my heart to know that in one day, they lost everything.
Families are living in crowded temporary housing in a nearby village. Orlando even told me he’s staying in one room with 17 family members!
Yet, amidst this heartbreak, there’s one thing I’m grateful for: our organization, World Help, is in a unique position to help the people of Los Lotes. Our in-country partners were the first to rush in and provide aid for the survivors from the village. Just a day after the eruption, we were handing out food and emergency supplies in the surrounding areas. In fact, the Guatemalan government has allowed us to be the first NGO to enter the village and help in the recovery efforts.
As amazing as it may sound, the people of Los Lotes have not given up hope. They’re literally rising from the ashes, picking up the broken pieces of their lives to rebuild new ones. Though they have lost so much, they still have faith that this is not the end of their story.
As I departed Guatemala, I promised my friends I would do everything I could to help them rebuild their homes and the homes of other survivors in Los Lotes. My hope is that if you’re reading this, you will join us in the effort. There are some things that can never be replaced, but we can show these survivors love and help them as they rebuild their lives.