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Mudslide-hit town buries its dead

Published 22/05/2015

Mourners line up coffins at a funeral mass for victims of the mudslide (AP)
Mourners line up coffins at a funeral mass for victims of the mudslide (AP)

Thousands of mourners poured into the streets to bid farewell to dozens of the victims of a deadly mudslide that ravaged a coffee-growing Colombian town nestled deep in the Andes.

Church bells in Salgar rang as a caravan of funeral coaches arrived from Medellin, three hours away, carrying the bodies of the first 33 of 84 people killed in Monday's flash flood.

A military band played Taps as soldiers positioned the coffins in front of the town's main church, where Bishop Cesar Balbin read a letter of condolences sent by Pope Francis.

Several high-ranking military officers attended but President Juan Manuel Santos, who visited Salgar in the aftermath of the tragedy, stayed behind in Bogota to welcome Chinese premier Li Keqiang, who is visiting the country.

Mourners, many of them wailing and grasping at coffins, had to be held back by police trying to prevent crowds from entering the town's cemetery. One woman fainted.

The above-ground vaults had been prepared for the burials by gravedigger John Edison Londono, who had worked around the clock since the mudslide.

The frenzied pace was an emotional as well as a professional response to tragedy. By stoically losing himself in his work, Mr Londono postponed grieving for 15 of his own relatives who were among the at least 84 dead.

"It's very sad, sad, sad," he said. "But you need to be on your feet, ready to fight, to help bury all of our compatriots."

The flash flood triggered by heavy rains was Colombia's deadliest natural disaster since 1999. An unknown number of people remained missing, but authorities said the chances of finding anyone alive buried under the mud were nil.

Authorities have turned their attention to providing shelter and assistance to the more than 500 people affected by the tragedy. The goal is to rebuild, but Mr Londono said that might prove difficult, because many long-time residents are ready to leave for fear of another disaster.

Coffee plantations that had been standing for a century were wiped out and entire neighbourhoods were converted into grey moonscapes. The body of at least one victim was carried by the raging current more than 60 miles downriver.

Mr Londono said the town cemetery could not handle the demands. Although there are 101 above-ground concrete vaults available for burials, he said many of them had been overtaken by mould and moisture and needed to be cleaned out.

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