Chilean Villagers Take To The Hills For Now

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Chile's earthquake devastated many small villages along the country's Pacific coast. They suffered from both the quake and the tsunami that followed. In one area, residents are now living in the forest above their deserted village.


Chile's earthquake devastated many small towns and villages along the country's Pacific coast. They suffered from both the quake and the tsunami that followed. Journalist Annie Murphy visited Laraquete, a place where the disaster has brought out the best in the community.

ANNIE MURPHY: Leaving the quake-ravaged city of Concepcion, Chile, it looks like a scene out of a disaster movie: collapsed buildings and bridges, looted stores and homes, people wandering the destroyed highways - all against a flat gray horizon of factories and smokestacks.

But as you drive south along the coast, the landscape softens. There are gentle coves, colorful fishing villages, and stands of pine trees and eucalyptus as the road climbs into the hills above the town of Laraquete.

Two thousand people are living here in the forest. Their village is virtually abandoned. Many homes were left uninhabitable by the tsunami that followed the earthquake, and people are afraid aftershocks could cause the sea to rise again. They're living here in old camping tents, and under sheets strung up between sapplings. The air smells like pine needles and cooking fires, and the place appears calm, clean and well-organized.

That's thanks, in part, to the junta vicinal, or neighborhood association, that's organizing everything from shared meals to reprimanding merchants who raised prices post-quake. Right now, the small committee is standing in a clearing, smoking cigarettes and stomping their feet as the air warms up. They think some food could arrive the next day, and they want to have a plan to hand it out.

Further up the hill, 61-year-old Ruth Castro is the leader of the group she's camped with. They've all arranged their tents around an improvised cooking area. Laundry is drying between some trees, and young kids sit at a table, dipping bread into cups of hot milk thinned with water.

Ms. RUTH CASTRO: (Through translator) We're here in a group, and we do everything working together. We women cook together. Everything we have, we share with each other.

MURPHY: Nigalina Vallejos(ph) is Ruth's neighbor. She's nursing a 15-day-old baby named Miguel. She had him by cesarean, and says the hardest part of living in the hills has been keeping Miguel and herself clean.

Ms. NIGALINA VALLEJOS: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Two of Nigalina's neighbors visit her every day to disinfect the scar from the cesarean, which is still healing. While we talk, they show up with a pot of boiled water, rubber gloves, gauze and scissors.

This camp, and the town of Laraquete, are an entirely different face of Chile, one that's rarely seen by outsiders. No malls, no upscale apartment buildings or new cars - none of the trappings of development.

(Soundbite of convenience store)

MURPHY: Convenience store owner Laura Morales(ph) still has some goods left to sell. It's surprising. Families are running out of supplies, and Laura's kept prices the same as always. Yet few are buying food.

Ms. LAURA MORALES (Convenience Store Owner): (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Laura says it's because the quake hit at the worst possible time: at the end of the month, when people were down to their last few pesos and before they could cash their paychecks.

In every way, this hill camp is a contrast to the scene elsewhere in Chile. None of the looting and social breakdown, none of the outrage at the government, and none of the aid that is slowly arriving to cities in the region. For the displaced people of Laraquete, the quake is just another hardship they'll have to weather as best they can. They expect to do it by relying on a community of family, friends and neighbors.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in Concepcion, Chile.

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