Looking at the sea, who would have guessed that these now quiet waves were the same that two weeks ago had left destruction and death in cities such as Pelluhe, Curanipe and other small towns located in central southern Chile? We were 140 young volunteers eager and willing to work. “Un Techo para Chile” had organized the hands and hearts of these thousands of volunteers who were seeking ways to serve and relieve the suffering of the population affected by this tragedy.
The plan was very simple: to build 60 small houses (mediaguas) for the poorest peoples – some of who lost everything and others who lost everybody – who are still living in the emergency camps.
When our buses were close to the city of Pelluhue, we saw a shocking scene.The fishing wharf area of the harbor (Mariscadero), a piece of land adjacent to the sea, was totally destroyed by the force of the waves. The towers of the stadium had collapsed and were on the ground like match sticks. We saw the path of a capricious sea which destroyed all signs of civilization in this area. However, 10 meters away from this area the trail of death left by the waves had not touched other houses.
It is so hard for me to write about this tragedy because I cannot find words to describe what happened here. There are no words to correctly describe the hell, desolation, distress, despair. It smelled rotten, as if dreams were cut from their roots, of so much suffering and affliction.
However, in the midst of so much destruction I could find hope; a hope that made me keep going and do not give up in spite of the misery and sadness surround me; a hope that edifies because it touches a vital breath which allows it to keep alive; this hope was in places that my naïve and grief-filled eyes could not see.
The hope and calm of Pancho and Cata - two children who lived with their grandparents and escaped from the tsunami when their grandparents forced them to run away leaving them behind. These two children reached the hill and survived but they will never see their grandparents again.
The hope of Rene, an artisan who lost his handicraft workshop, his instruments and tools, but he could not hold back his tears when the young volunteers and I gave him an 18-meter house which is going to protect him at least during this winter season.
The tireless spirit of children, men, and women who had no problem to work from 8 am until 1 am the next day, lunching in shifts in order to keep on working; young people who made the generous decision to spend the last weeks of their vacations working for all those anonymous and suffering Chileans.
A few weeks ago I was here in this city, participating in the Virgen de la Candelaria pilgrimage, walking along these streets which now are empty, kind of frozen in time. The house where I used to stay was totally destroyed and being turned into pieces of scrap wood.
I went to Chanco to visit Fr. Francisco, the pastor of this small town; this beautiful small town that usually has so many visitors during the Catholic celebration of the Virgen de la Candelaria. I found Fr. Francisco so quiet and catatonic looking at the place where the church used to be; there is nothing there, even the debris disappeared. It seemed to me that Fr. Francisco was living in an imaginary past refusing to see the cruel and hard reality before his eyes.
At the end of the week I admitted my powerlessness in the face of so much suffering.It did not make sense. As a Jesuit — even more as a human being, my hands and my heart could not find ways which would help these affected people blot out magically all the suffering they lived. However, I could do something wiser that I learned from the novitiate mission in Tirua: Help people to feel their lives again, in other words, I decided to listen to and accompany them.
When we were at the Pelluhue square waiting for transportation to go back to Santiago, a lady near me sighed and said, “We are now by ourselves again.” Most of the volunteers were leaving the city. I glanced at her thinking this is not a short time commitment, this task is going to take months, even years.
I think we must not only build houses (mediaguas) or give them out food. We must listen to them.
-- Cristobal Emilfork, SJ