In the aftermath of Hurricane Stan, a village has become cemetery

Just a couple of weeks ago, Panabaj was a picturesque community located on the side of a volcano, by Lake Atitlan and inhabited by Maya farmers, of Tz'utujil extraction. Tourism was a key industry. The village and surrounding area had a population of about 6,000.

The rescue teams only succeeded in recuperating 76 bodies - 41 children and most of the rest women. The uncontrolled mudslide coming from the mountain caught them unawares, swept into their houses during the night and buried them alive.

The exact death toll is not known yet. A rough guess has 2,000 living in shelters and other accommodation. The entire village is gone. Only houses on the outer limits remain.

People now call the village a cemetery.

Panabaj was declared a high risk area and, five days after the tragedy, access was banned, authorities used quicklime over the tons of mud to prevent diseases from spreading. Dozens of dogs were killed for the same reason.

Mental impact

This health measure may have a psychological impact.

"The fact that people have not been able to recover their dead or go back to the places where the mud took them away is extremely difficult for the survivors because it prevents them from mourning the losses", explained from Santiago Atitlan, Zohra Abaakouk and MSF mental health staffer.

The families that managed to escape in time are staying in makeshift shelters in Santiago de Atitlan. In churches and schools up to 500 people sleep on the floor while, outside, the town is starting to take on its normal pace: handicraft shops have opened and the market place is full of vegetables.

However, for many families that have lost it all, the makeshift shelters may become permanent situations.

"At first, cohabitation can be positive because it means safety and company, but if it goes on like forever it becomes a problem and gives rise to conflicts due to forced cohabitation with unknown people", said Zohra Abaakouk.

Ernesto and his wife, their six children and two grandchildren were lucky because the landslide passed just a few metres from their home. His two nieces died, but he thinks that it is God’s work he is still alive and says he prefers to stay in the shelter rather than go back home.

The rumours that rain might pour again bringing yet another tragedy prevents more than one person from sleeping just a fortnight after the storm that had a more devastating effect on Guatemala than Hurricane Mitch in 1998.