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Cursed or unlucky? Villagers must flee again, this time from a volcano

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For more than 20 years, a mural has been reminding a few hundred families here of their forced exile to Mexico after almost extermination at the hands of the Guatemalan army during a bloody civil war. The colorful images painted by school children tell a story about tragedy, but also resilience and unity.

First, it shows native families who care for crops in the western highlands of Guatemala. The second panel shows men in military robes, armed with guns, standing above a man bleeding from his stomach. Helicopters float in the sky and the village below is on fire. Children are spreading. The scene is followed by a map of southern Mexico, where the families fled.

The last image shows their return in red, blue and yellow buses and their new house named after the day they arrived here in 1998, a date that they processed in the name of their city: 15 de Octubre La Trinidad.

For years, the week of October 15 was a time to celebrate renewal and community. Villagers crowned a queen. They slaughtered their thickest chickens. They danced banda and marimba music. But this year there were no festivities and the mural explains why. The last panel shows men and women who care for coffee plants and children playing. But also prominent is the volcano of fire, which blows up black smoke in a blue sky.

Otilia Garcia Montejo with granddaughter Yoli Camposeco Jimenez, 7.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

La Trinidad, Guatemala

Children play in temporary accommodation.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

On June 3, 2018, Otilia Garcia Montejo, who heads the city council, was about to book the band for the celebration of the 20th anniversary when the volcano erupted. The explosion overshadowed the sky with a towering cloud of ash. Melted rock shot into the air. The volcano drowned neighboring villages in a hellish trifecta of lava, rock and ash.

In La Trinidad, Garcia Montejo handed out masks to filter out the strong smell of sulfur. People were crying and crawling in the Catholic Church for shelter.

"We all felt so vulnerable," Garcia Montejo recalled. "We tried to evacuate people, but some didn't want to leave … It was a difficult day."

The Guatemalan government says that at least 190 people died. Local organizations say that thousands are still missing.

La Trinidad is intact but tagged red. The government has officially designated the village as a risky area because rain can lead to mud and ash flows. The volcano remains active.

So last month, a time when they would normally celebrate their unity and survival in the midst of both natural and man-made disasters, the residents were divided. Garcia Montejo and about 80 other families, about a third of the city's inhabitants, overflowed from La Trinidad.

The families signed an agreement with the government to officially separate themselves from the community in exchange for small concrete houses in La Industria, a suburb in Escuintla, a municipality about 45 miles southwest of Guatemala City.

Otilia Garcia Montejo and 80 other families signed an agreement with the government to officially break away from the community in exchange for small concrete houses in La Industria, a suburb in Escuintla, a municipality about 45-60 miles southwest of Guatemala City.

Other residents of La Trinidad still hope that the government of Guatemala will help them settle in a rural area called Finca El Prado, more than 3000 hectares of undeveloped land, about 60 miles away from La Trinidad. Garcia Montejo sees no hope in such plans and is exhausted at the thought of rebuilding the community.

"If we have that country, we would have to start again like 20 years ago in Trinidad. We had no plumbing. No house, & Garcia Montejo said." It's too hard to start over. So we thank God for the opportunity to have our own house. & # 39;

Meanwhile, other community leaders are negotiating with the government and demanding that they help them buy Finca El Prado, where they can live off the land – as they have done for generations.

Otilia Gonzalez is one of those who fight for a piece of land. She is used to the common life – looking after her chickens and cattle, growing her own food – and has never had much good education.

La Trinidad, Guatemala

Aerial view of the housing where victims of the volcano are being moved.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

"If I took one of those houses, who would give me a job in the city?" She asked. "Nobody. How would I feed my family? There is no country to grow food. & # 39;

The community has already been deleted. She has been packed many times.

"This is the history that repeats itself," Gonzalez tells herself in her darkest moments. "It's the same story."

Gonzalez comes from a community of indigenous farm workers, ethnic Maya & Popti and Mam, who fled their homes in the western highlands during the civil war in Guatemala in the 1980s. The volcano is their last accident.

Fuego volcano

The Volcano of Fire erupts on February 9, 2016.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

1809 La Trinidad

The north facing landscape of the La Trinidad community shows how it is surrounded by volcanic rubble roads, as well as volcanoes.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

Some write down their problems for corrupt and awkward government officials. Others believe they are cursed and somehow wronged God.

One day in the 1980s, when the Guatemalan army entered, residents of the community of about 200 families – including the families of Gonzalez and Garcia Montejo – fled their homes in Huehuetenango. It was thought that the region was a stronghold of the uprising at the time. The community sought refuge in neighboring Chiapas, Mexico. The families thought that their stay would last a few months. The exile lasted more than 15 years.

The families were poor and relied on the charity of others, such as landowners, to survive. Every few years generosity would run out and the families would be forced to look for another piece of land in Chiapas.

& # 39; Pack your things, & # 39; said Gonzalez's mother to her children. "We have to move."

"But we don't want to leave," Gonzalez replied. "I'm used to living here. Why can't we stay? When can we return? & # 39;

They have moved at least four times.

"It would just tear my heart out every time we had to move," said Gonzalez.

Two years after the 1996 Guatemalan peace accords, which ended the civil war, the exiles returned to their home country and the government placed the surviving families on the southern slope of the Volcano of Fire.

Community leaders said they would discover later that the volcano remained a threat. It made the land fertile and they built a successful coffee cooperative from the ground up.

Although not rich, members of the community earned enough to live a simple and good life. Many cared for the fields, grew their own food and raised their own cattle.

In comparison with other cities, La Trinidad became the victim of the wrath of the volcano, but many of the coffee crops were buried in deep ashes. Government officials considered the village uninhabitable, evacuating most of the residents and placing them in an empty school in Escuintla. Emergency workers cram cots, mattresses and bunk beds in damp classrooms and a stuffy gym.

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In December 2018, the families were relocated to a nearby temporary home in La Industria, alongside a construction site for the tract houses that the government & # 39; worthy homes & # 39; has named. The busy site filled with the sound of tractors, cranes and engines is a departure from the serene atmosphere of La Trinidad.

Back in La Trinidad on October 15 – the traditional day of jubilation – Garcia Montejo and about 75 others attended a solemn mass in the Yellow Church.

"This will be one of the last misses I will attend here," she told herself.

La Trinidad, Guatemala

A Catholic mass in the community of 15 de Octubre La Trinidad.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

Many families spend half of their time in the community despite government warnings.

The volcano can explode at any time.

It was late in the morning. Garcia Montejo could barely see the volcano; heavy clouds obscured the view.

The 44-year-old said she knew she was in danger of being in La Trinidad. She just pushed her worries aside.

"It's calm today," she said, reassuring herself.

A few meters away, Gilberto Camposeco threw Jimenez, a 49-year-old community leader, and three other men on their backs full of wet coffee beans. They dragged them into an industrial coffee dryer. The ringing of the machine was music in his ears. They could have saved part of the harvest this year thanks to the long tradition of organizing in the community.

Fuego volcano disaster 2018

A house strewn with volcanic ash.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

"It feels good to be here, working the land," said Camposeco Jimenez. He plans to stay and fight for Finca El Prado.

Just a few weeks after the 2018 explosion, Camposeco Jimenez and other community leaders organized themselves in the shelters. They appointed a team of a few dozen men who took turns traveling to La Trinidad to keep an eye on the community 24 hours a day. They joined the 20 men who were left behind to protect the houses, church, and buildings with coffee and equipment.

About a dozen men patrolled the countryside on foot. Homemade shotguns waved on their shoulders as they trudged through hills and streams.

Camposeco Jimenez designated assignments.

"We learned to organize ourselves during the war," he said. "We kept this level of organizing with us even when we went into exile in Mexico. When a problem arose, we met to find a solution. That's the way we've always had to live. We look ahead of each other. "

It was the only way they survived so long before they went into exile, he said. Camposeco Jimenez was 10 when he fled to Chiapas with his family.

"The enemy, the threat at the time, came from the army to kill us," he recalled. "Now it's the volcano."

1809 La Trinidad

Community members in a reception center.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

1809 La Trinidad

War survivor Bernanrdo Cruz keeps watch under the Ceiba tree that serves as the community center in La Trinidad.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

It is unclear whether the Guatemalan government agrees to buy Finca El Prado. When the families find a place to settle, they hope that the government will give them more local autonomy and recognize them as an indigenous community. They have already sold 15 Octubre La Trinidad for a new name – Comunidad Indigena.

The brother of Camposeco Jimenez, Guadalupe, who is a member of the board of the new community, said the creation of such a community is an important step in their search for the culture, identity and customs that they have during their many years of displacement lost.

"I am Jacalteco, but I can no longer speak the native language of my mother Popti," he said. "We have lost so much."

Last year, shortly after they moved to the shelter in La Industria, the children painted a new mural – a continuation of the history of the community.

It starts with life before the eruption of the volcano – images of happy children playing soccer in La Trinidad. Corn and coffee plants are growing up. A pig roams free.

The second image shows a pyroclastic stream – a deadly mix of toxic gas, rock, ash and lava – that rages through villages.

The following panel shows the school in Escuintla, which served as the first shelter of the community, and the wooden huts where they now live, near the houses under construction.

The last panel shows what the Comunidad Indigena hopes for the future: men, women and children who plant corn and bean crops and harvest on green, open land. A bird is nesting on a tree. The sun is shining above. In the distance there is a volcano, far away.

1809 La Trinidad

A wall painting by renowned Guatemalan human rights lawyer Alfonso Bauer Paiz.

(James Rodriguez / For The Times)

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