A Chilean Drama Prompts Christian Love
By Awake! correspondent in Chile
NORTHERN CHILE is known for its dry Atacama Desert, with its long uninhabited stretches that disappear into the distance. Rainfall is so uncommon that what most people would term a mist is classified as rain in this desolate area between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. Because of these climatic conditions, most homes are not prepared for rain, and even where there is occasional rainfall—perhaps once every five years—most never bother to check the possibility of a leaky roof until the rain comes. This fact probably saved the lives of many in Antofagasta, a city of some 250,000 inhabitants.
On Monday night, June 17, 1991, many people were preparing for a night’s rest, when heavy rains began to pour down. The roofs on many homes were leaking, so instead of going to bed, people were trying to fix leaks or limit damage—not suspecting that something far worse was to occur within a few hours.
Early the next morning, three huge mud slides, moving millions of tons of earth at a speed of 20 miles per hour [30 km], caused the death of approximately 85 people, injured about 700, and destroyed or damaged the homes of more than 30,000!
Anguish in a Sea of Mud
In Antofagasta there are ten congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with about 1,400 members, so there was real concern for their welfare. How happy we were to hear that none had lost their life, although one sister suffered serious injury when she was swept away by the mud for a distance of nearly two miles [three km]. When she was discovered by rescue crews, they thought she was dead until a nurse noticed that she was breathing and, drawing close, heard her calling “Jehová, Jehová.” She had swallowed a considerable quantity of mud, so they rushed her to the hospital to treat her for infection.
In the Oriente Congregation, some 70 percent of the families lost their homes or had them seriously damaged. Other families in the Costanera and Corvallis Congregations also suffered heavy damage to their homes, as the mud reached the height of the roofs in some areas or flowed into the houses, filling rooms with up to five feet [1.5 m] of mud. In one home a mother and her two young children were floating on their bed in a sea of mud, the mud slowly pushing them up to the ceiling; they were rescued when the woman’s father managed to break through the roof. Others in relatively safe places felt that the end was near as they listened to the roar of the mud slides tearing at everything in their path and heard the cries of anguish off in the cold darkness of the night.
Something More Valuable Than Possessions
Although losing many of their possessions, the Witnesses have displayed a remarkable spirit. One Witness commented on how friends and workmates were surprised at seeing her joyful spirit in spite of great material loss. She told them that if material things were to be placed in the alphabet according to importance, they would be in the space of the letter z. She was happy to have survived and to be alive with all her family.
Another mother, who was torn away from her daughters and almost lost two of them as well as her own life, had fervently prayed to Jehovah that if she could return to life early in the resurrection, she would like to serve as a cook while others worked on restoring the earth! She survived, and where do you think she was asked to serve in the days following the mud slides? Yes, in a kitchen the Witnesses set up to serve hundreds of meals to Jehovah’s Witnesses and neighbor families who had lost their homes!
Christian Love in Action
The loving Witnesses in Calama and Iquique made arrangements to send bread, water, clothing, and other necessary items to Antofagasta. The branch office of the Watch Tower Society arranged for help also, and soon clothing, blankets, beds, kitchen equipment, food, and other items began arriving. How touching it was to see that many items donated were not used and leftovers but newly purchased! Soon the Society’s two trucks and a third one from Rancagua were on their way to Antofagasta, about 875 miles [1,400 km] to the north, with some 14 tons of goods. Although word was sent out that it was no longer necessary to donate additional items, they continued to arrive. As a result, an extra truck had to be rented to carry another 16 tons! These supplies were shared generously with neighbors who were not Witnesses.
Although located in one of the areas that suffered most, the home of one family of Witnesses survived in good shape. They quickly showed their love for neighbor, receiving in their home 9 Witness families as well as 70 other neighbors who were not Witnesses, many of whom arrived covered with mud and without clothes. The Witnesses made available all the clothes and blankets they had at their disposal.
Many have given of their time, resources, and energies to be of help. Although it has been a tragedy of great proportions for Chile, Jehovah’s people once again demonstrated their unity and brotherly concern, even sending a monetary donation from as far away as Texas in the United States. One person summed up the two weeks of disaster relief in Antofagasta: “Never have we had an assembly of 13 days, with so many real dramas, with so many manifestations of love, with so many giving of themselves as was made evident during the past several days.”