A United Brotherhood Unshaken

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN EL SALVADOR

AT 11:34 ON THE MORNING OF JANUARY 13, 2001, AN EARTHQUAKE MEASURING 7.6 ON THE RICHTER SCALE SHOOK THE LENGTH OF EL SALVADOR AND WAS FELT FROM PANAMA TO MEXICO. FEW WILL EVER FORGET WHAT THEY WERE DOING AT THE MOMENT IT HIT.

“WHEN the worst of the shaking subsided, we looked up and saw the tip of the mountain split, and then it seemed to freeze for a few seconds,” remembers Miriam Quezada. “My daughter screamed, ‘Mama! Run! Run!’” Then the face of the mountain slid off and tumbled toward them. About 500 lives were snuffed out in the Las Colinas community of Nueva San Salvador, or Santa Tecla, and some 300 houses were obliterated.

“I had just left home and was waiting at the bus stop when the earthquake struck,” recounts Roxana Sánchez. “When the shaking stopped, I helped a lady pick up her bags and  thought, ‘I’d better go back home because my family will be worried about me.’” When Roxana turned the corner, she saw that her street ended abruptly at the foot of a mountain of dirt. Her house was gone!

Providing Immediate Help

The total number of Witnesses in El Salvador is over 28,000, and thousands live in the disaster zone—the area along the Salvadoran coast. Although still reeling from their own trauma, many quickly began focusing on the needs of others. Mario Suarez, a traveling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses serving in Santa Tecla, relates: “About an hour after the earthquake, I received a call for help. Some Christian brothers and sisters were said to be trapped in their houses. A group of volunteers were immediately mobilized.

“We thought that maybe some walls had fallen and that it was just a matter of removing rubble and making a passageway so that those who were trapped could get out. But none of us could have imagined the magnitude of the disaster. In fact, when we arrived at the site, we asked where the houses were. To our horror, we were told that we were standing on them! The houses were buried up to the second story in nine feet [3 m] of earth. It was devastating!”

As the afternoon hours passed, approximately 250 Witnesses from neighboring congregations poured into the area to help. With only picks, shovels, plastic pans, and bare hands, the volunteers desperately tried to reach the survivors. Very few, however, were rescued alive in Santa Tecla. Among the hundreds who perished—asphyxiated or crushed under tons of earth—were five of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Organized Relief Efforts

All over the country, congregations of Witnesses became involved in relief activity. In Comasagua, Ozatlán, Santa Elena, Santiago de María, and Usulután, many Witnesses had lost their homes. Kingdom Halls and private homes were converted into collection centers. “The support was tremendous,” says traveling overseer Edwin Hernández. “The brothers arrived with food, clothing, mattresses, medicines, and even cash for funeral expenses.”

A relief committee, appointed by the local branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses, arranged for groups of less affected congregations to care for the immediate needs of those that were harder hit. Work groups comprised of between  10 and 20 Witnesses were formed, and these attended to needed repairs.

In addition, Regional Building Committees of Jehovah’s Witnesses, which usually arrange for the construction of Kingdom Halls, organized groups to build provisional housing for those whose homes had been completely destroyed. Within El Salvador the price of corrugated tin skyrocketed, so the Guatemala branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses generously donated a large supply of it. Lumber for framing the shelters was provided by the branches in the United States and Honduras.

Amid this flurry of activity, the tremors continued. Whole communities slept in the streets under plastic tarps and old sheets. Nerves were frayed. By February 12, a total of 3,486 aftershocks had been logged.

A Second Major Quake

On February 13, 2001, at 8:22 in the morning, one month after the first quake, a second earthquake struck the center of El Salvador, registering a magnitude of 6.6 on the Richter scale. Once again, rescue and relief efforts by Jehovah’s Witnesses went into high gear. An elder named Noé Iraheta explained: “Each Congregation Book Study conductor went to look for the Witnesses assigned to his group to make sure that they were all safe.”

The cities of San Vicente and Cojutepeque and their outskirts were hit hard. The towns of San Pedro Nonualco, San Miguel Tepezontes, and San Juan Tepezontes were in ruins. In Candelaria, Cuscatlán, where the destruction was almost total, a parochial school collapsed, killing more than 20 children. Salvador Trejo, a local Witness, recounts: “About an hour later, I heard a voice from the street calling, ‘Brother Trejo!’ At first, I couldn’t see anything for the dust. Then, suddenly, the Witnesses from Cojutepeque appeared. They had come to see how we were!”

Neighboring congregations again became organized to provide necessities for victims of this second disaster. They followed the first-century example of Christians in Macedonia who begged for the privilege of giving, although they were in need themselves. For example, those in the congregations in the city of Santiago Texacuangos, who had suffered great losses during the first earthquake, prepared hot food to take to their brothers in nearby San Miguel Tepezontes.

Altogether, it is estimated, over 1,200 people perished in the earthquakes in El Salvador, and an additional eight were reportedly killed in neighboring Guatemala.

 Efforts Appreciated

The organized efforts of the Witnesses to assist victims were appreciated by other relief groups. A National Emergency Committee vehicle arrived to dispatch emergency provisions at a Kingdom Hall that was being used as a shelter. A representative exclaimed: “Of all the shelters we have visited, this is the first that is orderly. I congratulate you!” No one there swarmed the truck, pushed, or shoved, as had occurred at other centers. In fact, the elderly were given first consideration in receiving the donations.

The Witnesses did not limit their relief efforts to fellow believers. In San Vicente, for example, dozens of non-Witness neighbors sought refuge on the grounds of the Kingdom Hall. “Here at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” said Regina Durán de Cañas, “the people have hearts of gold. They opened their gates and said, ‘Come on in!’ and here we are. Even at night they take shifts watching over us while we sleep.”

Arranging for Housing

After the damages were evaluated, recommendations for providing needed housing were made to the branch office. Provisional  houses began to be built for those who had lost their homes. Also, repairs were made to houses that had only partial damage. The hardworking, efficient construction teams attracted quite a bit of attention, as neighbors came out to watch them work.

One woman, thinking that the workers were the long-promised aid from the township, came to complain that no one had come to help her to clear her rubble. The neighbor children explained: “No, lady, they aren’t from the township. They’re from the Kingdom!” Another non-Witness, Moisés Antonio Díaz, commented: “It is a fine experience to see how Jehovah’s Witnesses help those in need. This is a very united organization, and thanks to God, they have the goodwill to help us poor people. I have worked along with them and intend to keep on doing so.”

A Christian sister for whom a provisional house was constructed was crying when she said: “My husband and I don’t have words to describe our gratitude—first to Jehovah and then to these brothers who, although they didn’t even know us, quickly came to our aid.”

By mid-April, 567 provisional homes had been built by the Witnesses for victims of the earthquakes, and almost 100 additional households had received materials to repair their damaged homes. Once the needy families had a door to lock and a roof to protect them, the Witnesses focused their attention on the 92 Kingdom Halls needing to be repaired or rebuilt.

Rebuilding Lives

Apart from the reconstruction of buildings and homes, many were especially grateful for the shoring up of their spirituality and emotional well-being.

“Under the circumstances, because the tremors continued, there were moments when my nerves betrayed me, but the brothers were a constant source of warmth and encouragement,” said Miriam, mentioned earlier. “Where would we be without the brothers?”

Jehovah’s loving care through the congregation arrangement has motivated earthquake victims in surprising ways. In Comasagua nearly all the Witnesses’ homes were damaged or destroyed by the first quake. Yet, 12 of the 17 Witnesses there enrolled to share in the full-time ministry during April and May, and 2 have since become regular full-time ministers.

Congregations in the department of Cuscatlán, one of the areas most affected by the second earthquake, held their special assembly day in March. There was a record attendance of 1,535, and 22 people were baptized. Despite the fact that so many in attendance had just lost their homes, they donated a considerable amount of money to the Assembly Hall, to the surprise of the assembly organizers.

Echoing the grateful sentiments of many, a Witness from San Vicente commented: “I had read in the publications how the organization responds during times of disaster, but now I have experienced it personally, and I have felt the support of the brotherhood. We have seen Christian love in action. What a privilege it is to belong to this united people!”

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The landslide caused by the earthquake buried more than 300 houses in Las Colinas

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Bottom of pages 23-5: Courtesy El Diario de Hoy

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The villagers used picks, shovels, and buckets in their rescue work

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Courtesy of La Prensa Gráfica (photograph by Milton Flores/Alberto Morales/Félix Amaya)

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Ruins of the Kingdom Hall at Tepecoyo

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A shelter was immediately set up by brothers at Tepecoyo to hold their meetings

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Witnesses quickly rebuilt Kingdom Halls and built more than 500 provisional houses

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A grateful single mother and her daughter watch the reconstruction of their damaged home