Daily life in Mocoa: One month and counting

By bogotapost May 19, 2017

The main square in Mocoa. Photo: Rocío Ortiz

Mocoa resident Rocío Ortiz discusses the day-to-day struggles to rebuild  and move on after landslides destroyed much of Putumayo’s capital city.

Today I went to check out the local marketplace in Mocoa. It is currently filled with the sounds of saws, hammers and nails from sellers rebuilding their stalls. People are restarting their businesses without any help from the local authorities. For weeks they have been selling their wares on plastic sheets laid out on the floor.

One month after the landslide, business is at about a third of what it was before. There is talk of relocation to an improvised spot elsewhere, but it is not clear under what conditions, or for how long. Meanwhile, word has spread that the city mayor announced that sellers will be expelled by force if need be. Such are the murmurs and sounds that resonate in the emptiness of what used to be a lively place. 

From the market, passing the Sangoyaco River and walking two blocks uphill, is Mocoa’s main square. There, the military are entertaining the children with clowns and games. Nearby, there is a queue for those identified by the government as ‘affected by the disaster’ to receive subsidies. While the children play, the adults queue. During the many hours spent waiting, I have met acquaintances whose fate I hadn’t known including a friend who felt guilty for not being in Mocoa that night. It took him three days to find the bodies of his wife and daughter, who both died in the mudslide. Nowadays he can barely sleep; he believes he could have saved them had he been there.

Besides the emotional shock of stories like this, I have started to feel disappointed by the pointless bureaucracy. There are so many different queues for government programmes it’s almost as if they were put in place with the intention of keeping us locals busy. For example, there was a queue to get our properties officially registered, without charge. But by the time we finally got to the front and received the document, it had a big stamp across the front declaring “this document is not valid for any official procedure.” It was infuriating; “So what is it good for then?” we asked. The officials did not know. Apparently, we can present it in another office in order to get the official property document, which has to be paid for.

Outright misinformation is a constant in our new daily life. For instance, there is a queue for people who lost their businesses. We waited in it for an entire day, only to learn that the credit would only start paying after a year’s time. Yet, this is only for businesses registered at the Chamber of Commerce, which means informal businesses like ours cannot apply.

We also lined up in the queue located in front of the church. At this point, it was no surprise to be extensively asked about the properties we lost, just to find out that support was addressed to people in “extreme poverty”. Away go the officials taking their harvest of information, and here we remain with our uncertain prospects.

Crossing the Sangoyaco River again, this time heading west from the main square to where my house used to be. While the second floor and the roof are still standing, the river burst through the walls of the first floor, taking away most of our things and eventually leaving behind volumes of mud and debris reaching almost two metres in height. For a while, after a body was found in the house, I didn’t want to return or continue excavating. Moreover, the mud stinks due to the sewers destroyed by the landslide.

Those working in public transport say they have seen many families who, in the face of uncertainty, have decided to leave. None that I know of though. My remaining relatives and friends are still here. Mocoa, in spite of everything, is a beautiful place to live. It’s not only where I was raised, it’s where I intend to continue living.

It is unclear whether my house is worth salvaging or not, given the damages suffered. For now, I am determined to get all the mud cleared out. INVIAS – the national highways agency – has hired men from the most heavily affected areas to work on cleaning crews. The other day I saw some of them had gathered some of my pots and pans to take away. Witnessing the scene made me feel as ashamed as they did when they saw me; they were also in need and I couldn’t bring myself to claim my belongings. In the end, we’re all trying to provide for our children, to figure out the basics moment by moment in order to make life possible.

Some of my neighbours are already working on their houses, rebuilding walls and washing the mud away. Particularly those who, as is common in Mocoa, had businesses fronting their houses. Rebuilding is not only a matter of shelter, but of livelihood.

Things are far from being settled, though last week the aqueduct was reconnected, only for the water to pour out through the many broken pipes thus flooding the neighbourhood. Given that 30 days after the landslide there is still no running water in many areas, we have to be ready and gather different sorts of containers for when the next tanker truck passes by. I can tell you that a considerable amount of our energy is spent on mundane affairs like this.

The days following the landslide were exceptionally sunny, turning the mud into dust. I think this is the source of the viruses that have started to affect us a month later. Now the weather is changing with the rainy season finally arriving. Two days ago we had heavy rains again, and many – including myself – panicked.

However, we continue to move along, rebuilding our lives among the imposing mountains that surround us with the memories of the past and the challenges of the future all around us.

Additional reporting by María Elisa Balén and Lorena Gómez