Office of the Press Secretary
(Tegucigalpa, Honduras)

For Immediate Release March 8, 1999


Auditorium, Cotton Research Center
Posoltega, Nicaragua

3:45 P.M. (L)

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Here you have four people, Mr. President, who have suffered the indignities of nature and Hurricane Mitch: two women from the same area we visited today. You heard the stories there in Posoltega. As we were saying, it didn't look at all like it looked today. It was like something out of Dante's Inferno. And Ricardo also -- and we wanted them to tell you very simply what they went through and what it is that they want. And also this little boy, Juan Pablo -- is anybody a relative of his? Yes, his brother is outside.

So talk very frankly with President Clinton now.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Could I just say one word? This is Senator Graham, who is from the state of Florida, in the United States. First of all, thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know it must be hard to relive your story. But I think it is very important for us to be able to go home to the United States, having seen not only the President -- who is my friend, I enjoy that -- but also the people who have lived personally through this terrible tragedy.

It is also important for the health of Nicaragua's democracy that he and I, when we respond to this terrible tragedy, respond in a way that helps you the most and that is consistent with your wishes. So I would like it if, in your own words, you could just tell us a little about what happened to you and your family, and what would help most going forward.

MR. SANTELIZ: Yes, President Clinton. First of all, we want to thank you -- we want to thank you for your visit. We think it's extremely important at this point in time for us. The assistance we have been given by your administration and by the people of the United States have been such that they have reanimated us in our efforts.

To a certain extent, it has not been easy to forget the circumstances that we've undergone. But, as I was saying to our President, Dr. Aleman, hope is the last thing you should lose -- and today more than ever, because as you said, we have to strengthen the hope in our lives.

Mitch was the total tragedy, starting from the mud slide down the Casitas Volcano. From the end of that until now -- an event that did away completely with our communities and did away with everything we had and with a future that we'd carved out for ourselves. It wasn't easy, because our communities lived together, worked together. And from international organizations we would get assistance, like CARE, like Save the Children, like Marina (phonetic), which has also strengthened aid to the environment here through forestation.

But at one point we were able to get through that very bitter situation, that terrible tragedy and that mud slide that we suffered. This happened on October 30th, at 11:00 a.m., 1998. We were still very frightened, there was a lot of water. And we thought that we were about to die, with everything that had happened. When suddenly we heard the thunderous noise from the volcano.

I remember, I was at home, in one of the devastated communities, around 11:00 a.m. I was listening to the radio, listening to the news when suddenly I heard the mountain thundering. It was almost as if -- twice as loud as if all the helicopters had suddenly come down from the skies. I had never been as afraid in my life as I was that day. I really felt that my life was slipping through my hands. And the neighbors all started shouting.

I remember I had my four year old son sleeping inside my house. And when I went out to the porch my neighbor, my brothers and my brothers-in-law started shouting at me, "Get out of there, because the mountain is falling down." And I shouted at my wife, "We can't get out." And she said, "RUN." I ran out, but suddenly, I remembered my little boy was sleeping inside. I ran back, I picked up my son. I threw a sheet around him and put him over my shoulder.

I left running, towards an area where on one side there was a ravine, there was a ravine on the other side. And the water was higher than the ceiling. It was impossible to cross the river. My children ran along with me and they said to me, "We're going to die." And somehow or another, gathering all my strength together I said, "No, children, we will not die." But when we got there it was full and there I lost hope.

I thought that the mountain had all come down and it was going to bury us. I remember there was some young people who were with me and they wanted to jump in. Since I was in the back and I was holding someone I shouted at them, "No, don't jump in" -- because they were going to kill themselves like that. So we started walking all along the edge, trying to find a farm. We weren't able to do anything. We were there from 11:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. on the 30th.

When we saw that the water was not going down, we went back. I said to my wife, "We won't be able to do anything here." Our children were very, very cold. So we decided to go back to the house. When we got back to the house. When we got back to the house, since I didn't have the strength to close and lock my house, I found people inside the house. I found a little boy -- bigger than he is -- about nine years old. His eye was cut completely all around him, had no clothes on at all.

I started to look outside. I was very cold and all wet, and my children were, too. But when I saw these people wounded I started taking off my own clothes. Since I couldn't put my pants on, I cut them with scissors and I put them on him and I put my shirt on him. He went to sleep, that day. Thank goodness, I had a sleeping pill and I gave it to the little boy so he could sleep. But the water just kept rushing through.

The next day, on the 31st, Saturday, I spent all day with the water up to my waist. I had taken my children, I had taken wounded people. We had taken about 15 wounded people already. It was a tragic moment. It's very difficult to forget that.

And now we are slowly recovering, because in spite of everything -- we lost relatives, I lost 22 relatives of my own; my wife lost 45 relatives. And that's how it happened. It was truly a tragedy. And there is still more sadness. I had to take my wife away to Leon because she was extremely nervous. She was really overwrought and I didn't want her to suffer a crisis, to have a breakdown. So now we're trying to recover our lives, slowly but surely.

We've abandoned our homes, because they're right on the edge, just 30 meters from the -- that's where the water came by our house. It was tragic.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And of your -- how many people died?

MR. SANTELIZ: Forty-six.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what family suffered the most? Rolando's family and El Porvenir is another place that disappeared completely.

MR. SANTELIZ: I remember that when -- I found people, I found about 50 people, those are the ones who got out and they weren't touched because they ran as soon as it started.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How many people do you think died in both communities?

MR. SANTELIZ: Well, Doctor, I think -- these were very big communities. It's impossible to calculate. I don't know what the census are. But I think there must have been about 4,000 people died.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Do you think many people are buried there?

MR. SANTELIZ: Many, many people are buried there. And many were able to go out through the --

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what about this child?

MR. SANTELIZ: This was Rolando's boy. He was there in the village. The story of this boy was very, very sad. We rescued him on Sunday, the 1st. We went out, because we couldn't get in. And we found this little boy under some enormous branches, tree branches. And this was all he had, this was the only thing we could see. He was calling his brother that he was with, Ecedro (phonetic). The only thing you could see was his eyes and his nose; and we found a little girl with him who died immediately, as soon as we got her out of the mud.

And, thank God, as I told you, all these organizations supported us. The main organization that helped us completely, immediately, was Save the Children. I remember all the assistance they gave us -- water, nourishment, utensils for cooking. They helped us a lot -- CARE, as well. And the support of the Army, the support you gave us with the planes. But I never lost hope. When I was running I kept thinking, this current has already gone down to the road. They are going to realize what's happened and the helicopters will come. But if it doesn't stop raining it's going to be very difficult.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And how many survived from this child's family?

MR. SANTELIZ: Just three. His mother and father died. Just him and two of his brothers and -- PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And who is your older brother?

JUAN PABLO: Vasilio (phonetic).

MR. SANTELIZ: That's his oldest brother who survived.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And who are you living with now?

JUAN PABLO: Vasilio.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How old is Vasilio?

JUAN PABLO: Twenty-one.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So he has two brothers now?

MR. SANTELIZ: One is 13 and one is 21.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: And are both of them living with him -- he's living with both of them?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Are you going to school, Juan Pablo?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Why not, sweetie? You were going to school back in --


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: No? Didn't you go to school back in -- but there was a school there, wasn't there?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Is your other brother going to school?

JUAN PABLO: Tonio (phonetic).

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Tonio, is he the one going to school?

JUAN PABLO: No, he's not.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And how many of your brothers and sisters died?


MR. SANTELIZ: And his mother died.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And you have uncles and aunts?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Did your father have any brothers or sisters? What about your mother?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And where are your uncles and aunts, did they die?

JUAN PABLO: Yes, the whole family.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So now it's you and your two brothers?


PRESIDENT CLINTON: And you have to stay close with them.


MS. PANTOJA: I thank you for -- for our great good fortune being here with you. What I can tell you is that when the mud slide happened, I wasn't there then because I was being attended at a clinic, I was about to be operated on. And that's what saved me.

But from what people tell me, she was dragged by that mud slide and these people all tell me that it sounded to them like it was a whole group of helicopters coming from the sky. And when they heard that noise they turned around and her husband told her to get out. And she picked up her little girl, but then she saw the mud slide was coming down on them. I didn't see it -- but I was from Rolando, I wasn't there at that point. But I lost my children, my grandchildren, my sisters, my brothers-in-law, my sons-in-law and my daughter-in-law. We weren't able to do anything. We weren't even able to pick them up, dead or alive -- we didn't know where they were.

And my two sisters had a shop there. And my sister had four girls who were studying in Leon. So I went to my mother and father, and these girls, because they weren't well at all. And some of my children were looking for them. But it was impossible, we couldn't find them in the hospitals or anywhere. There was no way to locate them. My children who survived were trying to see how to get in, and then they would get into the mud -- and they'd get very deep into the mud, it was very dangerous. Since it was a Sunday -- you couldn't even recognize the bodies anymore -- and so we weren't even able to give them Christian burial.

That's the story I have to tell.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How many survivors from Rolando do you think? How many people in your community there?

MS. PANTOJA: In Rolando I think there were about 2,000 of us -- 2,500, maybe.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And how many do you think were alive -- like you, who were able to get away before it happened?

MS. PANTOJA: Well, there are several survivors because since there was a lot of rain the crops were finished -- the beans and the corn and everything. So all the people had gone to Costa Rica to find work so that they could eat.

So only -- that's why many women were widowed and many men were, as well, because their families had left.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Do you think there are more than 2,000 people who died in Rolando?

MS. PANTOJA: No, it must be about 3,000, between the two communities.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Rolando and which other one? MR. SANTELIZ: El Porvenir is the other community. There were 46 who died there. And Versaillo (phonetic) was also affected in part of that community. MS. PANTOJA: I have faith in God, and in you. We're desperate here because we were left with nothing at all, absolutely nothing. There we are, living in those shelters, in those tents. And I thank you and the government and all of the organizations, like the Red Cross and Save the Children, who have brought us food. I thank God for that.

And more than anything what concerns the people now is their shelter, a place to live so they can have a little house -- so we can see how we can work to get ahead. Because we lived off of our farming there and we don't have anything to live off of now; we have no way to work. And basically you know that to work you need to have some kind of money to start off. And I have about six people -- nieces of mine who survived, apart from my own children, and I need to work so that I can support those children.

I hope that your government and you, as well, you all have good hearts and I hope that you will help us.

MS. ACOSTA: I thank you for being here with us. In spite of all the sorrow and all the tragedy that we've suffered, for three days I was terrified -- Friday, Saturday, Sunday -- I'm sorry, I was buried in the mud. It was cold and wet. I lost 28 people from my family -- my four children and my husband. And in spite of everything I had the hope, buried as I was, that I'd be able to find them. But I never was able to find my family.

Then they took me to the hospital and I waited and asked all my friends there to look out the window and to look in other rooms to see if they could find my family. It was impossible to go to find. I hope that we will be helped, as the President has always helped us, so that we can get ahead.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: No one from your home was saved, my dear? No one?

MS. ACOSTA: My sisters were saved because they had gone to work in Costa Rica. But the people who were living there, who were still there from my family, I'm the only one who survived.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And where were you?

MS. ACOSTA: In El Porvenir.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And that's exactly where the mud slide went through?

MS. ACOSTA: When it came through it was a terrible noise of helicopters. My husband went out and he shouted at me, "Sweetheart, run." And I grabbed my little girl and I ran out. But when I ran out the house had been destroyed and I was dragged by the water. I lost my little girl and I never found her again.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And your husband died, too?

MS. ACOSTA: Yes. And my little girl was shouting at me, asking me to save her -- but the water was dragging me away and I couldn't do anything. I was struggling to try and stand up again, but I couldn't do anything, I couldn't see anything.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And who rescued you?

MS. ACOSTA: I was rescued by people from the Red Cross who were there, and some people from the area. Two people from the area were there, as well. They found me. I was terrified and they were able to get me out, they were able to dig me out of the mud. I was there stuck for three days.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So what are you going to do now with your life?

MS. ACOSTA: I still have problems with one knee. I want to get well and I want to fend for myself, because now I have nothing and no one left. All I want to do now is work to survive and just get by.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: She said, "I just want to work until my day comes to go."

MS. ACOSTA: That's all I'm waiting for.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what's wrong with your leg?

MS. ACOSTA: I had a cast on this leg and it wasn't set properly. And so now they have to x-ray it again and see what they can do.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And where are you staying now?

MS. ACOSTA: I'm over there in the shelter.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know, the President was explaining to me when we were coming out that the people need not only homes again, but homes that are close enough to land which can be farmed again. Because a lot of this land which is covered by the mud, even though it's dried out, it may or may not be suitable for crops now. And a lot of trees will have to be replanted to guard against further flooding.

So I think we in the United States have to try to get some financial help to the President to do that. And then you will have to work together to identify the land where the people can farm again; and then the houses can be built.

You were explaining that to me, on the way out, what you have done -- find the land.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Yes. We have to be able to recover and to be able to dig deeper channels. Because otherwise you're going to suffer flooding here again. And we need to improve on that.

What's the name of this co-op that's over here? No, down here. El Tanke (phonetic). Let's see who's dealing with that over there. But there are individual cases like her -- she's alone, she has no husband or anything. And this little boy with his brothers. Let's see what else can be done. These are different things. And you -- you can still work and do things and you still have part of your family, but there are some people who are completely on their own.

Let's see what we can do to rehabilitate your leg. And you're still young. There are many things that we can do. There's some kind of work that we can find for you. You have no child who survived?

MS. ACOSTA: I had four.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: All of them little?

MS. ACOSTA: The oldest was 13. My little girl was 7 -- 13, 12, 10 and 7.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: And how old are you?

MS. ACOSTA: I'm 29.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: You're still young.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: So you became a mother when you were

PRESIDENT CLINTON: What about you, Juan Pablo? Do you want to say anything to us? Do you want to say anything to your President about this terrible thing?

JUAN PABLO: I lost my whole family and I miss them -- my mamma and my pappa.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Where are you living, Juan Pablo? With his brother?


MR. SANTELIZ: Yes, he lives at the co-op there with his brother.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: How many people are in that co-op? Fifty people, they said? And all these new people are coming in? You said that there are 2,500 people in a block. Will they accept them there?

MR. SANTELIZ: I'm going to give you my opinion. I think that what we need here for this problem is we need to sit down and talk to them and say, let's visualize. What's your point of view; what is their point of view; what about the opinion of the organization -- any organization, international or a government organization, whatever.

So I think it would be easier to sit down and talk with them to see what's the possibility; to find out what the alternatives are. Because maybe they won't all be admitted; because maybe there's somebody who doesn't --

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: I want to explain to you more or less what I understand from what they were saying. I was telling the President when we were going over there this whole sector that was destroyed was all co-ops. And they were destroyed.

But here in the Posoltega sector, down there, where they didn't have the problem with this mud slide, there's a property that's 2,500 blocks that provide -- that's about 2,000 acres -- only in the hands of about 50 people. And there are survivors from this community, about 300 people. And what they're asking for is to convince the other 50 who are over there that they should carry out some kind of agrarian reed reform, so that they give these people some work, so that they can all get three or four hectares per family. But the matter is convincing these people, convincing those 50 who have 2,500, and have them admit these 300 new families.

But we still have political problems here. These are co-ops -- and I'm talking very openly here in front of everybody. Those co-ops maybe aren't going to admit any of them because they're going to say, oh, no, they want to take away my land. But the question I want to ask you here is, are they cultivating all that land or not?

MR. SANTELIZ: To be honest with you, what I've understood so far is that the land has actually been rented to other people, it's been leased to other people who have money -- so they can plant peanuts or whatever.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: The co-ops, themselves, are doing that?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: We have to sit down and talk with them so we can convince them.

MR. SANTELIZ: I think what we need to do there is sit down, as I was saying, to see what points they propose, see what they want to do.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what about Juan Pablo's brothers? Have they already been admitted?

MR. SANTELIZ: No, they're in the same situation.

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: So you're like squatters?

MR. SANTELIZ: No, I'm not there. I was given a parcel, it's 12x20, by an organization from the U.S., as well -- in Washington. An Evangelical church gave us a little plot of land, about six blocks of --

PRESIDENT CLINTON: World Vision, was it World Vision?

MR. SANTELIZ: It's managed by the Evangelical Conference of the Assembly of God in Washington.

So since we didn't have anything we said, okay, give me a little plot of land where I can go, and that's where I am. The only thing is that we're all so very much reduced right now and we're under so little plots of land.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: How much land did the average family farm before the hurricane and the mud slide?

MR. SANTELIZ: About five or six blocks -- what they call blocks, which are actually more like hectares.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Ten acres? So the average family had 10 acres?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Per family, that's what each family had.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: And then this block, you say, with the 50 families, they have an average of 25 hectares?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: It's, like, 100 acres per family -- this particular group.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So they could actually sell it out?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: And what they're doing is they're renting out the land that they're not farming themselves.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: So it's your proposal for the government the buy this land on behalf of the other people, if they will accept them?

PRESIDENT ALEMAN: That would be the ideal situation. The problem is that the co-op with those 50 people -- and it's very, very good land, they know that land, very fertile land. This co-op got it back in the Sandinista days. So I don't think they're going to want to give it up. They're not going to give it to anyone or sell it.

They prefer it, as he was saying, to rent it, to lease it, because it's better business for them. We'll see what measures can be taken. And the discussions we're trying to hold -- we'll see how we can change this. Because the other problem we have, Mr. President, is there's land, but not in this area, not on the Pacific side.


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: This has been traditionally farm land. But we'll see what solution we find. Faith in God.

Juan Pablo, you have to go and study now. Do you promise you're going to study?


PRESIDENT ALEMAN: Are you going to study? You promise?


PRESIDENT CLINTON: You can learn a lot and pray to God to take care of your mother and father. And they will know and be very proud of you.


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