Fuego volcano: Guatemalan survivors rebuild amid the chaos, stones and sand

Children and families displaced by eruption receive support in temporary shelters

By Rodrigo Mussapp
A woman washes clothes with her son, Guatemala
UNICEF Guatemala/2018/Mussapp

13 June 2018

ESCUINTLA, Guatemala, 13 June 2018 – It was shortly before 11:00 am on Sunday, June 3, 2018 when Gricelda Santiago Sánchez heard the explosion. It seemed loud, but she had lived there many years and heard worse. And yet, her maternal instinct told her to be watchful.

After 3:00 pm that same day, Gricelda heard a new explosion, but it was different – louder, more complex. She alerted her sisters and, grabbing her son and two nephews, ran to the coffee plantations scaling the mountain. As soon as they could, the family flung themselves into a small opening in the ground – an instinct that would save their lives. The Fuego volcano had erupted. 

I ran as fast as I could, I was so scared.

Felipe Neftaly, 7

Felipe Neftaly, Gricelda’s seven-year-old son, is one of more than 650,000 children and adolescents living in areas affected by the volcano. Lowering his head, as he held on to his mother’s hand, he is visibly shook-up.

Some of the people in this small community just 31 miles away from Guatemala City ran towards the highway, but it was impossible to escape the mixture of volcanic gases and hot lava descending the volcano. It razed and buried the entire village under 10 feet of boiling mud, stones and sand.

That day, Gricelda lost her mother-in-law, as well as many friends and neighbours.

A boy receives a pair of shoes, Guatemala
UNICEF Guatemala/2018/Mussapp
Seven-year-old Felipe Neftaly receives donated shoes at a temporary shelter.
Transfer to shelters

In the days following the eruption, the survivors were transferred to schools that had been converted to temporary shelters. Gricelda and her sisters, nephews and nieces, grandparents and other family members moved into room 18 of the José Martí School. They lost all of their belongings, and now depend entirely on the help they receive.

Their first nights were spent sleeping on a single makeshift bed in the classroom. Just hours before, the desks had been ready for students to come back to school. But now everything has changed.

A destroyed village, Guatemala
UNICEF Guatemala/2018/Mussapp
The Fuego volcano's pyroclastic flow destroyed everything in its path, leaving a layer that even five days later recorded temperatures above 300 degrees Celsius.
Help arrives, but not enough

Gricelda brought the children to collect shoes that were donated to the shelter by a private company. Felipe Neftaly and her nephews Alexander and Omar were each able to get a pair, but there was no time for celebration. They would have to stand in a new line to get hygiene products and then in another line for lunch.

People across the country have donated food and supplies to help the victims. But it’s not enough. The Government of Guatemala is doing everything possible to respond to the emergency, but the complexity of the disaster has forced it to request support from the international community.

In the afternoon, the lines continued. Elmer Quintanilla, Gricelda’s brother-in-law, wonders whether in two weeks, with the World Football Cup in full swing, they will still be remembered.

UNICEF, in coordination with the Government and partners, is providing essential support and services to the most vulnerable. Urgent actions include psychosocial support for affected children and their families; family reunification for separated children; protection of children in shelters; water, hygiene and adequate sanitation; child-friendly spaces; proper nutrition for children; and interim education, so children can return to school as soon as possible.