Post-quake Ecuador celebrates Christmas with dampened mood, strong spirit


An atmosphere of solemnity and reflection marks this year’s Christmas celebrations in Ecuador, where an April destructive earthquake left many homeless and others living in precarious conditions.

“This Christmas won’t be the same. The earthquake changed our lives,” one of the disaster’s 16 survivors, Ondina Rojas, 34, told Xinhua in a faltering voice.

Eight months after the powerful 7.8-magnitude quake rattled the country’s north coast on April 16, area residents are having their first Christmas without their loved ones lost in the disaster, which claimed 668 lives and injured more than 16,000.

As a gloomy reminder just days before Christmas, a 5.7-magnitude aftershock hit the same region on Dec. 19, spreading panic among residents still reeling from the country’s worst disaster in nearly 70 years.

Another three people died, all caused by heart attacks, and nearly 850 homes were damaged or destroyed.

The mood is especially somber in the northern provinces of Manabi and Esmeraldas, which bore the brunt of the temblor.

Rojas, who lives in Jama, a small ocean-side community on Manabi’s Pacific coast, was trapped under rubble after the seismic waves toppled her home.

Rojas and her only daughter, 6, were finally rescued 16 hours later, both sustaining injuries to their legs.

In addition to recovering from the fear and wounds caused by the natural disaster, and the economic hardship of losing the roof over her head and other belongings, Rojas has been grieving the loss of her father, who died in the quake.

Still, she is thankful for what she does have, including her mother, who she went to live with after her own house collapsed.

“We are going to spend time together as a family, with my mother and my daughter … (it is) a time to recollect and thank God above all else,” said Rojas.

“I am happy because my only daughter is alive, and my mother, who despite having a brain tumor, struggles day to day to survive,” said Rojas, who now lives in Manta, Manabi.

Rojas, who was unemployed at the time of the quake, now works for Ecuador’s National Secretariat of Risk Management, offering schools and public institutions training about earthquake safety and evacuation procedures.

Her thoughts often turn to the “mothers, fathers and children that lost their families, of the many people who were left without a home, of the many people who still live in shelters.”

She said she also focuses more on the present, thinking less about striving to leave a better future for her daughter, and more about making her daughter happy at the moment.

“Today, I have her here with me, I don’t know about tomorrow. I can’t think of having material things because right now I only have a lot of debts, and the earth keeps moving,” said Rojas.

More than 3,000 aftershocks have shaken the coast since April and several of them were stronger than magnitude 5 on the Richter scale.

Andrea Quijije, who lost her home in Manabi’s seaside town of Bahia de Caraquez, is battle-hardened after living through various earthquakes.

“On April 16, seconds that felt like an eternity destroyed homes, buildings and lives, but they couldn’t destroy hope,” Quijije told Xinhua.

“Eight months have gone by since the earthquake and a day as symbolic as Christmas leads me to stop and see that my province, though damaged, is still standing,” she said.

This is the second time her house has been destroyed in an earthquake. The first time was in 1998, when a 7.1-magnitude temblor shook her hometown, causing substantial damage.

“It fell in the earthquake and we built it again on the same spot. Now it has fallen for the second time, and we haven’t been able to rebuild it yet. It has been very tough, but I’m still hopeful,” said Quijije, who is currently renting a place on the outskirts of the city.

Signs of recovery are everywhere, backed by government measures to promote rebuilding efforts.

While some families are celebrating Christmas in shelters, others are observing the holiday in their new homes, or with surrogate families, who receive a kind of bonus for opening their home to those in need.

“The shelter was too cold. Here in this house one is warmer,” said Dayana Chavez, one of those taking advantage of the program, as she helped decorate the Christmas tree.

The state-run Ecuador Reconstruction Program has repaired 11,167 homes and are constructing 13,000 new homes.

The reconstruction effort is estimated to cost upwards of 3.344 billion U.S. dollars and take at least three years. More than 1 billion dollars have been spent so far. Enditem

Source: Elena Chuquimarca, Xinhua/

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