Amongst all the excitement we volunteers experienced this week in Huaraz, there was a moment of reflection and composure as we entered the memorial site of Campo Santo in Yungay. To the back of the site lies Mount Huascaran standing at 22,205 feet above sea level in the region of Ancash. The mountain is Peru’s highest and is part of the Cordillera Blanca, or “white range” in the Huascaran National Park.
Mount Huascaran is located at the junction of two tectonic plates making the range susceptible to earthquakes and vulnerable to a number of potential disasters. In 1970 a severe earthquake caused a huge ice mass to break away from the mountain resulting in a substantial landslide which consisted of water, mud and rock. It plummeted down the mountainside uprooting trees, crushing houses and completely wiping out livestock. Ultimately, the destructive path of the avalanche buried two surrounding village Yungay and Ranrahirca killing over 70,000 people in an ordeal which lasted only two minutes.
Today, evidence of the disaster is anything but scarce as signs of destruction are commemorated at the Campo Santo where rose gardens paint the landscape in yellows and pinks, and commemorative monuments and ruins of earlier infrastructure abide. In the middle of this tranquil garden of the past stands a group of palm trees, three of which withstood the baneful fury of the landslide since they were saved by the cathedral having absorbed the majority of the impact. Further down from this garden, is a monument consisting of a school bus, a house pillar and part of a car which are all melded together and from what I could see are mostly unidentifiable in their present state due to the force of impact. There was even a roof of a gas station which was just barely jutting out from the ground – a rusty reminder of the past as was the palace like structure covered in names of those that had perished from the avalanche.
What struck me the most was the enormous cup of various colours and designs situated in the middle of all this aftermath. Our guide told us that the cup is filled with snow ice annually at a festival on the anniversary of the disaster. As much as it is a reminder of the past, for me it symbolized the embracement of inevitable change, sometimes unpleasant and most often unexpected. But as Yungay has demonstrated through the rebuilding of their town, change can be managed and in my opinion the people of Yungay possess an extraordinary ability to face down adversity and continue moving forward.
Christina Baker is a volunteer with Karikuy in Lima, Peru.