Art helps survivors of the Mitch nightmare;Briefing;International

25th June 1999 at 01:00
Honduras and Nicaragua

DAYSI Mariella Augilar doesn't talk about what it was like watching her family drown.

When Hurricane Mitch, the worst the West has ever known, hit southern Honduras last October, the Choluteca river rose aterrifying 15 metres.

Daysi's village of Las Vegas was swept away. Unable to swim, her family clung to a tree; her mother, grandmother and siblings to a lower branch; Daysi and her brother to the trunk.

More than 48 hours passed, before the lower branch holding her mother and grandmother collapsed into the turbulent waters. Daysi was rescued hours later, and today lives with an aunt.

When the hurricane caused the Casitas crater in neighbouring Nicaragua to overflow, sending rock and mud sliding down on the mountain villages, three-year-old Isobel Aragon fled with her father. But the little girl was thrown face down in the mud and almost asphyxiated before her father rescued her. Two thousand died in the mudslide.

Survivors thought they were witnessing the end of the world. For Isobel, a secure childhood ended. Today, she suffers violent nightmares and palpitations, and she holds her breath in repetition of her near-asphyxiation.

Regression, panic attacks, sleeplessness: the symptoms of trauma are part of Mitch's legacy for the people of the worst-hit regions of Honduras and Nicaragua. While bulldozers repair and rebuild bridges and buildings, PLAN International, a UK-based development organisation, is initiating a different and potentially more long-term reconstruction process - trauma counselling.

Last month three psychologists, funded by PLAN, toured the disaster-struck Posoltega district of Nicaragua. In a balloon-decorated village hut in Tonala, pre-school children enacted Pinocchio, before revealing their Mitch-induced nightmares.

Outside in the sunshine, older children sat in a circle and composed wish lists: "I want a bicycle and that there is never another hurricane" is typical, or "I want to go with my friends to a nice place and to forget what happened."

"People used to think that psychologists were only for crazy people," says Dr Josefina Murillo Vargas, who provides one-on-one help for the most severely affected. One mother whose children died in the mudslide complains of acute pains in her heart. Dr Vargas is the only person who helps ease them, she says.

In Honduras, PLAN International and the United Nations Children's Fund are devising individual programmes for schools. The first session was at a large school in Los Llanitos in southern Honduras, where most families lost their homes.

Women counsellors divided the children into groups, and led them through various exercises, including one using art materials to reconstruct a version of their greatest loss: a grandmother, a dog called Rambo, a soccer ball. Anabel, 13, made a miniature house. Her family survived the flood by sitting on the roof. Her eyes fill with tears at the memory.

Today some agri-ecologists are predicting that Honduras and Nicaragua may never recover from Mitch's onslaught. But the trauma counselling may help these young people slowly regain some peace of mind PLAN International website: 0171 485 6612.

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