Written by Claudia Sensi Contugi.
First, came the silence.
The silence of people used to waiting, waiting for it to pass so they could go on with their lives as if nothing had happened. For some it was a silence to show strength and how little it affected them. A tilt to one side, then to the other. Nothing to worry about. For others, it was a scared silence, embarrassed to vocalise their fear, because like many other times, it would be over soon. Another tilt to the right, then left. A hand gripping the nearest table. Nothing to worry about.
The waves kept getting stronger. Until you felt your body flowing along with it, because not flowing meant falling. And when the lights went out and the waves got stronger, that confidence and fear melted into panic, settling right in our guts. And as the movement kept going, that panic rose up our throats. It tried pushing its way out, but was trapped within us.
No sound other than the stunned silence, a silence that came with the realisation that it was not going away. That we weren’t going to go on with our lives just yet. That this time, something did happen.
And then, it was over. Our everyday comfort, shattered by the earth beneath us. The silence shattered by the clapping of shoes on concrete, the hurried whispers, and the screams finally making their way out. People tapping on phones, searching for answers to what just happened. Is my family okay? Are my friends okay? Where was it? How strong was it? How many dead?
Are we okay? Are we okay? Are we okay?
In the morning, the news completed what social media had told us the night before. The epicentre was in Pedernales, a small, coastal town, 250km away from Guayaquil, my hometown.
7.8 magnitude. 233 dead, 558 injured, and counting.
Over the following days, the numbers kept climbing. People who’d been there as volunteers, rescuers, medics, said it was worse, much worse than what the news was showing.
By the end of the week, after the rescuing brigades had finished going through most of the debris, the death toll tripled, and the injured increased tenfold.
Earthquakes, I’ve learned, change the way you see everyday things. The roof over your head is no longer a source of comfort and safety, but of fear, a threat, looming over you whether you’re sleeping, shitting or eating. You are more aware of any shadow of a movement than you’ve ever been in your life, to the point where the sway of a lamp, even a ripple in a glass of water makes your muscles freeze and your skin tighten until it suffocates you. Anything more sends you running out in the open, where there is nothing between you and the sky.
Then, there are the aftershocks. They sneak up on you in your sleep, days after, weeks after, months after, just when you’re starting to feel safe again, to make sure you don’t get too comfortable. For us in Guayaquil it meant more sleepless nights. But for the people in Pedernales it meant sleeping outside, preferring the cold mattress of the street than the possibility of another ton of bricks or wood collapsing on top of them. What was a simple fear for us in Guayaquil was a reality for them. Their worst nightmare had already happened, and yet there was still the possibility, the very real possibility, of it repeating itself.
Before this happened, I, along with many other Ecuadorians, had no idea Pedernales even existed. Now the town and its people were there, every day, on my TV screen, on my phone, in my friends’ conversations, and on my mind. When you see news of a disaster on TV, you feel bad for the people, but there’s distance. This time, that distance disappeared. Because those people weren’t suffering oceans away. They were part of our country, right in the nearest province. They were no longer strangers, they were our brothers and sisters, ones whom we would work tirelessly to help.
That day also changed the way I saw my neighbours and fellow Ecuadorians. People who wouldn’t even be speaking to each other, working shoulder to shoulder, united to deliver help. People calling everyone they knew to collect donations, staying until midnight organising them to be shipped to the victims, people offering their homes, their garages, their warehouses as collection centres for donations. Supermarkets flooded by people buying water, tuna cans, powdered milk, leaving the shelves empty for days. Pharmacies went out of stock for first aid kits, because everyone wanted to contribute, if only with some Band-Aids and rubbing alcohol. Even Ecuadorians living or studying abroad made donation websites, collections for money or products to send here. I had never felt more proud to be a part of this small country.
Three weeks after, I went to Pedernales with a brigade from Hogar de Cristo (which means ‘Christ’s Home’ in Spanish), a humanitarian organization that specialises in providing assistance to the homeless. Our mission in Pedernales was to do a census of the areas where the people were most affected so that we could start building emergency homes.
We left Guayaquil at 11PM and at 6AM the bus dropped us off at the central square of Pedernales. In the middle of the square was the façade of a church, the only thing standing from its previous structure. We lay our backpacks on the concrete floor and sat on metal benches, nailing at the chipped paint while we waited for the leaders to guide us to our headquarters for the weekend.
‘If we had come here two weeks ago, you would’ve had to bring all your meals and water,’ said a curly haired girl, one of the organisers. ‘Thankfully, the economy’s reactivating, so you can go and find some breakfast nearby and meet us here at 6:35.’
We followed the smell of a bakery. As we walked, I noticed almost every building still standing sported several cracks racing up their walls. One of them had its entire second story exposed, and among the piles of bricks, you could see a bed, flipped upside down, a table with broken legs, and a toilet. Signs that it used to be a home.
‘Last weekend, there was a three story building there,’ said our group leader, as he pointed to a terrain piled with crumbled concrete, wooden shards and strings of rebar bent and rolled like a ball of yarn. He took one last bite from his bread, then led us to our camping site. The first thing we saw was a white tent and church pews lined up below. Further in was a square of grass, and a small building with living quarters.
The group leader spoke as he laid his backpack on one of the pews. ‘Hogar de Cristo had spoken to a group of Jesuit nuns who lived here, and they offered us the yard so we could set up our tents here. The nuns used to live in the church, but when it collapsed, they came to live here. A priest comes on afternoons and evenings to celebrate mass. Come, sit.’
We sat and waited to be assigned an area to cover for the day.
We spent that morning doing surveys with different families. We asked them about the damages of their home—was it partially or completely destroyed? How was the quality of the roof, the walls?—We asked about the shelters they were staying at—did they have access to water? Sanitation? Medical attention?—And which of these things they needed the most at that moment. Then came the tougher questions. Any family members injured, disappeared? Any losses?
The families I interviewed were lucky enough to have all their members together. But I discovered that what affected them the most wasn’t when they spoke of the damage of their home or what was needed the most at that moment. It was when I asked about their lives before the earthquake. What was their home like? What did they do for a living? Were they still able to do that job?
One of my interviewees was a teacher. When I asked how the catastrophe had affected her work, she said, ‘Well, the school collapsed, so I don’t work there anymore.’ She looked down and her eyes trembled. ‘I had only entered the school three weeks ago as a secretary, and now it’s gone.’ These questions were necessary for us to understand the structure of the town and to help reactivate their economy in the future. But for her, it was a painful reminder that things weren’t going to be the same. That she would not be able to return to what her life used to be.
In the afternoon, we stopped for lunch at one of the semi-collapsed houses. From outside, you could tell it used to have a second story. Doña Dolores offered us a seat in the plastic tables on her terrace, and brought a bowl of shrimp soup and white rice; the only meal she would serve today, in her home-turned-diner.
Doña Dolores was a mother of three. While we ate, her youngest, Dasha, a curly haired wonder dressed in pink, would ask us all kinds of things. When we asked her age, she lifted three fingers. When I asked if she had a favourite animal, she said ‘cow’. She asked if I liked colouring books, and when I said yes, she brought a thick photocopied book with pictures. I wondered if her mother had made it for her.
She showed me the pictures in her book. ‘This is a dog, and he is talking to this bird, see? And this is his mother. She is angry because he talked to strangers.’ She kept pointing to pictures and explaining each one to me, and even when the food arrived, I had to eat looking at her. Andrés, one of the guys from my group, joined in, teasing her, acting as if he didn’t know the animals.
‘So … is that a cow?’
‘No, silly, that is a dog!’ said Dasha.
‘Now, that’s a cow,’ he said, pointing at another picture.
‘No, no, no! That is a goat! See the horns? Goat.’
‘Well where are the cows?’ he said, barely able to conceal his mirth.
Dasha became exasperated with him and turns the pages looking for a cow to show him. ‘See? That is a cow!’
‘Ooh, I see,’ he said, and I laughed at them. I scooted near her to see the page, and I pointed to a picture of a school. ‘And what’s that, Dasha?’
‘This is my school …’ she said, and I nodded, reminded of my niece, who once insisted a picture of a dog in her school book was one of her dog, not a dog.
‘But the building isn’t like that anymore …’ She then pointed to an image of a park. ‘And that is the park that got destroyed. ’ My smile fell as I locked eyes with Andrés.
Dasha turned the page and pointed at a picture of three little girls. ‘And these are my friends who died.’ She looked at her mother, not sensing the tension around the table. ‘Right mommy? These are my friends who died.’
Doña Dolores looked at us with sad eyes as she stroked her daughter’s hair. ‘She was playing with two friends in the house when it happened. She got caught under the rubble but I was able to pull her out. Her friends ran but the walls collapsed over them. She saw everything’. I looked down at Dasha and saw her smiling at me. She asked me if I wanted to be her friend.
‘Of course,’ I said, not having any words left.
The next morning we went to a refuge camp where people who had lost their homes were staying in tents. It was a place called Coaque, in the outskirts of Pedernales. I surveyed over fifteen families living in those tents. Some had little children, some had elderly parents. Others had family members who had fled to another city. Most of them only had a mattress and the clothes they had on, as they were living off donations rationed by government officials. None of them had jobs and no way to make a living at the moment.
They told me about their experiences from that day. How they had friends who had lost every member of their family and how they were able to escape. How an old man had gone outside just seconds before a wall fell, crushing his bed. How one of the children, a little girl of seven, saved her younger cousin of from the rubble that used to be their home.
They also told me about their situation at that time. How the men would go into the city and help others to rebuild. How they found some kitchen utensils in what they had gathered from the rubble and made a station to cook for all of them. How they would take turns watching each other’s children. How they supported each other during the horrible situation they were going through.
At midday, we went back up the road to wait for the car to pick us up. And I noticed something I hadn’t when we first arrived. Right in front of the slums, the sun was shining over hills covered by teak trees. The trees were lush, their leaves a green so bright they screamed life. It struck me as odd how such beauty could live alongside all that destruction and suffering. And I realised there’s a kind of beauty that always comes alongside disaster. These people had lost everything but still had the strength to go on, to smile, to help their neighbours and be grateful to be alive and to have their family with them—that was beautiful. The people back in Guayaquil delivering help in any way they could—that was beautiful. The group of volunteers around me, eager to lend their hands—they were beautiful.
The nuns who gave us a place to sleep. The lady who lent us one of the rooms of her hotel for us to shower. The families who offered us a place to sit in the shade while we were doing the survey. The councilor and his daughter who drove us to and from the farthest counties of Pedernales. Doña Dolores, creating a diner from what she had left of her home. Those families in the refuge camp, who shared what little they had left and supported each other, even if they weren’t family, even if the only reason they had met was because of this tragedy.
These people represented the strength of this town, the strength of Ecuadorians. That no matter how much we lose, we can have strength to stand up again.
Claudia was an exchange student at Deakin University in 2014.