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Colombia: Half a town has disappeared

Tobias Käufer
April 2, 2017

The people of Mocoa are in shock. The disaster there has claimed around 300 lives, and the full extent of the devastation is only just starting to become apparent. Meanwhile, the media are celebrating a hero.

Kolumbien Überschwemmungen
Image: Getty Images/AFP/L. Robayo

He didn't want the little girl to drown. Desiderio Ospina spotted the child in the waves, leaped from his car and tried to help. He scrambled down to reach the 12-year-old girl - but moments later a mudslide swept them both to their deaths.

The whole of Colombia has been moved by the story of this Colombian policeman, who would have turned 24 in just a few weeks' time. His father, Enrique Ospina, told it to the daily newspaper "El Tiempo." Desiderio had joined the police, the father said, because he wanted to help others. Bidding farewell to his father the day before his death, Desiderio had said, "Papa, there's going to be a lot of work to do." It was raining hard, and he'd already guessed things were going to get difficult. That was the last conversation the father had with his son.

His is one of many terrible stories from the night of the disaster in Mocoa. A massive avalanche of mud, scree and water ploughed through the town of 40,000 inhabitants near the border with Ecuador late on Friday night, bringing death in its wake. On Sunday morning,  the news magazine program "semana" reported that horrified helpers had already recovered more than 280 bodies. Many more people are still missing.

Kolumbien Schlammlawine
People have lost many belongings under the mudImage: Reuters/J. Saldarriaga

Huge rocks flattened all before them

The sun rose on a devastating scene: Uprooted trees, collapsed houses and huge rocks that, along with the water, had flattened everything in their path. Aid workers and volunteers with stretchers were scrambling over the rubble, transporting the dead and seriously injured away from the disaster area. Even the professionals were finding it hard to deal with.

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos visited the scene to get an idea of the situation. "We'll put together an action plan," he said, looking shocked. Santos announced he would do everything possible to ensure that the dead were buried with dignity. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also expressed her sympathy with the victims of the disaster: On Sunday, the deputy government spokesman, Georg Streiter, said in Berlin that Merkel was deeply saddened by the immeasurable suffering of the people of Mocoa.

Colombia's President Santos immediately declared an emergency so that the appropriate funds could be released from the national budget. On Sunday morning Santos flew back to the stricken region. He announced that 30 percent of the usual monthly rainfall had fallen in a single night. The small rivers around Mocoa had been unable to channel such a huge quantity of water, and the fatal mudslide was the result. Scientists have reported that deforestation in the area has caused severe erosion in the mountains.

As in Peru a few weeks ago, Colombia too is currently being hit by unusually heavy rains. Furthermore, this disaster has cut the town's "umbilical cord." There is no electricity, no water, no gas. The hospital doesn't have enough beds, medicines or resources to treat the many casualties.

Kolumbien Mehr als 90 Tote bei Überschwemmungen Präsident Santos
Colombian president: "We'll put together an action plan" - but he seemed shockedImage: picture-alliance/AA/Colombian Presidency Press Office

Seventeen districts affected

A total of 17 Mocoa districts have been affected. Many houses simply no longer exist: The people in them didn't stand a chance. The ground literally gave way beneath their feet, washed away by the sudden, unexpected flood. Other victims were crushed or drowned in the debris.

The Colombian army and the Red Cross are making a superhuman effort. An airlift is painstakingly being organised to fly the injured out and relief aid in. Survivors are being brought to emergency shelters.

Deadly mudslides hit Mocoa, Colombia

The district of San Miguel is particularly hard-hit. Colombians commenting on news reports in the big papers say the town is unrecognizable. The mayor of Mocoa, José Antonio Castro, has explained that many people were in fact warned in time, but hadn't then managed to get out of the affected areas and into higher parts of the town. There's been criticism of the weather forecast, saying it was too late in issuing a warning.

President promises reconstruction

In all this chaos, President Santos has nonetheless dared to look to the future. He says he intends to rebuild the parts of town that have been destroyed. Colombia is experienced in dealing with catastrophes: In the country's recent history, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have frequently resulted in tragedy. The pain of the victims, however, weighs heavier than the loss of infrastructure. "Desiderio died because he tried to help a little girl," the policeman's brother tells himself, trying to find comfort. And at the moment, any comfort at all is in short supply in Mocoa.