Here in Antigua, 10 miles away, people go about their daily business: Students rush to school; tourists snap shots of the UNESCO-protected city’s Spanish Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.
Officially, 110 people died and 197 are missing.
Insufficient government response
But no one knows how many people actually lived in the disaster zone.
Poor, rural communities like those on Fuego’s slopes are difficult to count accurately because they are remote and difficult to access. Census workers tend not to speak the indigenous languages that predominate in the Guatemala’s Mayan highlands.
In our interviews with victims of the Fuego eruption and the volunteers helping them, several people have complained that the Guatemalan government is reporting information they know to be inaccurate.
“The government gives these numbers to look like it’s in control,” one rescue volunteer told us. “We know they are lies. Thousands died and will never be found.”
Since the eruption, rain has regularly fallen across Guatemala, hardening the volcanic ash into something resembling concrete. Unless the government sends dozens of workers with heavy equipment, bodies will likely remain entombed where they fell.
A fumbled rescue effort
The lack of up-to-date population information has made it even harder for Guatemala’s cash-strapped government to plan an effective, coordinated rescue and recovery mission.
Officially, the government’s disaster reduction agency is charged with coordinating evacuation, cleanup efforts and providing supplies to victims during any national emergency. National police officers and soldiers are now in place to guard the disaster zone to keep survivors and rescue workers out of the eruption zone.
But the larger rescue effort was mounted by people outside the government. Local volunteer firefighters and emergency workers entered the disaster zone to rescue victims from the hot ash and shuttle survivors to shelter. Social media and civil society organizations – including the academic Guatemala Scholars Network – have played a bigger coordinating role in local aid activities than Guatemala’s national disaster office.
People did not wait for the Guatemalan government to help after Fuego exploded.
On the Sunday of the eruption, La Merced Church, in Antigua – which was not affected by the volcano – rang its bells, calling parishioners to help the priests who were already loading trucks of supplies to help the victims. Church officials tell us they have sent an average of four trucks daily to shelters, full of collected food, clothing, medicine and other items.
Hangars at La Aurora International Airport, in Guatemala City, have become temporary storage for relief goods pouring in from private donors around the country. It is one of 21 donation centers where hundreds of volunteers bag and label food, clothing, medication, cleaning supplies and personal hygiene items. They are then driven to affected areas.
Volunteers in Antigua’s central plaza are accepting donations, too. They deliver food and medicine now. Other items they’re housing for later.
“The media will soon move on to something else, people here will grow weary and the government won’t do what it needs to do,” explained one woman receiving donations. “So we’re collecting anything and everything that is given and saving it for later.”
A delegation of volunteers lead by firemen from Antigua are making regular 34-mile trips to the ash-covered village of Paraíso El Xab, where people are now contending with poor air quality, water contamination and damage to crops. Eswin Cabrera, president of the town’s Community Council Development Organization, says unripened coffee beans will soon begin to rot.
Accustomed to disaster
Neighbors helping neighbors is standard practice in Guatemala.
Kerstin Sabene a photojournalist currently based in Guatemala, contributed original photography and reporting to this article.