Mexicans 'pick up the pieces' one month after quake

Thursday, October 19, 2017

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MEXICO CITY, Mexico (AFP) — One month after the earthquake that jolted Mexico on September 19, flattening dozens of buildings across Mexico City and leaving 369 dead, many people are only just starting to pick up the pieces.

Here is a look at the recovery effort in four snapshots.

How do you keep going to work if your only clothes are the ones you were wearing when your home collapsed?

In Roma, a trendy neighbourhood devastated by the quake, a group of friends came up with an original idea to help people in that situation.

They transformed an art gallery into a "boutique with a cause" that gives away crisp business clothes to those who lost everything but their jobs.

"My building was condemned," said Jesus Dominguez, 31, an employee at a bookstore that specialises in medical texts.

"It's a very awkward, hopeless situation," he said with a pained look as he tried on jackets, barely able to talk about his ordeal.

The boutique receives about 20 "customers" a day.

"They're usually reluctant to come, but they're always smiling when they leave," said a volunteer at the shop, Jenny Tapia.

In Condesa, the bohemian neighbourhood next door, another association has set up a library with 2,000 books rescued from the rubble.

The library is located in an old colonial house that the association set up as a refuge for exiled writers and journalists from around the world.

The books "were out in the rain for days, under the rubble. They have bad mold. They're very damaged," said Marlene Fautsch, who is working on the project for Mexico City's culture ministry. "We diagnose them, heal them, and now we want to return them to their owners if possible," she told AFP.

Books awaiting treatment are stored in a room once inhabited by British writer Salman Rushdie. Nearby, technicians in white lab coats, gloves and face masks are meticulously cleaning texts. The books come from a 21-unit building that collapsed in the quake. It was home to numerous artists and intellectuals.

Many of the residents died or are hospitalised.

Intimate remnants of victims' lives can be found within the books' pages: love letters, pictures, recipes, children's drawings and even Egyptian parchments.

"It's like an archaeological study of the lives lived there," said Fautsch.

In Xochimilco, a far-flung neighbourhood on the capital's south side, Jaime Tirso Perez stands watch day and night outside what is left of the Atlapulco Cultural House, a private museum housing his personal collection of pre-Columbian artefacts, historic photographs and documents, and thousands of books.

The museum, located in a house that was more than 200 years old, collapsed in the quake leaving the priceless collection exposed to the rain, grime and looters.

Perez, a 72-year-old teacher, doesn't know what to do other than try to stand vigil over the collection he spent a lifetime amassing along with his wife.

"We'll have to see how much we're able to salvage with the community's help. But we don't have the kind of equipment we would need to lift up the roof" and access the inside, he said. Hauntingly, the earthquake hit on the anniversary of another one in 1985 that killed more than 10,000 people.

After that quake, the government set up 260 shelters for the newly homeless. Meant to be temporary, they were built with sheet metal and measured six metres by three (20 feet by 10).

Thirty-two years later, some victims are still living there, and some families are now in their fourth generation.

Alfredo Villegas, 36, speaking in one of the camp's labyrinthine alleys, recalls that he arrived here at the age of four.

The government will not let residents install running water or electricity, he said. "People are always getting sick here," he said.

"The units are very cold in the winter... and human barbecues in the summer."

Ana Lilia Duran also arrived here as a young girl.

The recent quake brought back bad memories of her experience in 1985.

"It was terrible. We had to shelter in the doorframe because we were afraid the electric cables would snap and fall on us," she said.

When she arrived at this camp, she thought her family's stay would be brief. But the government kept them waiting — and waiting — for a new house.

"They've abandoned us to oblivion. Thirty-two years have passed. I hope the same thing won't happen" to victims of last month's quake, she said.

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