Gravestone, Armero, 1994. Photo by Adam Jones.
"It was about two in the afternoon when the gas and cinders started escaping from Nevada del Ruíz," remembers Leyla, who was there - in Armero, that is, down the valley from the volcano.
"That was all the warning we had. At nine in the evening the mud arrived. It poured through the town all night. And that was the end of Armero."
Leyla and her sister were fortunate to live on high ground - ironically, by the town's cemetery. They were among just five thousand people - of a population approaching twenty-five thousand - who survived the catastrophe of November 13, 1985. Afterwards, Leyla and a number of other survivors moved to Ambalema, the next community of any size down the road.
"If you were living in a one-storey structure, you didn't stand a chance," she tells me. "The only people who made it in the heart of the town were those who could climb to the tops of the taller buildings in time.
"Oh, my God, I'll never forget the sight. The helicopters came in next morning, but apart from lifting a few people off the roofs, what could they do? Armero wasn't there anymore."
It is not quite what one expects to see. There are no carefully-tended mass graves, as with the World War battlefields; no neat rows of crosses.
All that is left of functioning Armero is "Cruce Armero," the name given to the crossroads with the main Ibagué-Bogotá highway - a pair of flyblown beer-and-soft-drink stands, nothing more. A tienda owner directs me down the road to the "site of the tragedy." I am upon it almost before I know it: catching a glimpse, out of the corner of my eye, of a simple bleached cross amidst the weeds and grasses. Then a cluster of them; and the shattered roof of a house struggling free of the dark silt.
The highway here was reconstructed by blasting through the sea of dried mud that blanketed Armero to a depth of fifteen feet. A little further down the road is the closest thing this horror-show offers to a ghost-town: a string of commercial buildings that once, perhaps, straddled the main highway. They still do, but now the pavement runs along their first-floor ceilings. They are buried nearly a storey deep, and their crumpled interiors are overgrown with branches and ferns. Someone from the Colombian Communist Party - Marxist-Leninist has scrawled a sign on one façade: "Armero: Your vengeance will be victory!" But what, exactly, is there to avenge here, and how?
A few metres further on I leave the main road and walk along a gravelly, overgrown path into the bush. There is no-one here, as I elbow my way through waist-high foliage that leaves burrs and thorns on my trousers. It is humid as hell, and my sweat draws the gnats and flies; their buzzing is the only sound.
More skeletal dwellings, half-buried. More clusters of crosses - now I can see there are hundreds of them, scattered over what looks like an alluvial plain extending across both sides of the highway. In the distance are the mountains, with the sharp Lagunilla River canyon in the middle; it looks like a gunsight's notch, aimed at what used to be the heart of a thriving city. That was where the torrent of mud came from, at speeds up to fifty kilometres an hour: cold at first, from the mountain snows, then smoking-hot from the bowels of the volcano. It "rolled into town with a moaning sound, like some sort of monster," said one survivor.
A low hill, and then I'm at the cemetery, whose elevation saved the lives of Leyla and a few others. It is almost a relief to read inscriptions on stones and markers that do not list November 13, 1985 as the date of passing.
My arrival startles a herd of cattle, grazing among the memorials, and they scatter down the hill. From here, in fact, I can see that the whole of Armero has been turned over to scrubby pasture. There are knots of Indian cows all over, and a few large bulls - one of whom confronts me as I leave the graveyard and forces me to beat a quick retreat. To be gored to death on this killing field lacks even a metaphorical appeal.
Back to the main road. A few feet on this side there is a small concrete cross that's been knocked over by passing cattle or humans, or has perhaps just succumbed to the years. Most of the memorials hereabouts are in disrepair - overgrown, untended. This one lies on its side in a bed of brilliant yellow flowers, with ants and a couple of hornets crawling through the tangle. The name on the cross is, by some grim coincidence, Leyla. Erected in loving memory by her husband.
Leyla. I reach down and lift the brambles. There is a kind of pipe embedded in the mud adjacent, perhaps a repository for flowers. With a little chipping I find I can fit the cross into it. Leyla's memory is firm in its new moorings.
And well, yes, then the tears come. It is not just the ghastliness of what has passed here, but the air of human abandon that pervades the place - and the strange beauty of nature's humid regeneration, the insects and wildflowers and cowpies. I say a little prayer for Leyla and twenty thousand other souls. From here on I walk with a strangled heart, pausing at the odd marker that stands out from its fellows. November 13, 1985. November 13, 1985.
There is one formal memorial site, a large white cross christened by John Paul II himself, with some accompanying blather recorded in marble at the base. Something about the crucifix representing both pain and hope, linking heaven and earth. I hope God appreciates it, if he's not too busy planning another Armero somewhere. ("It's quite simple," I had told a friend a few months earlier. "If God is omnipotent, he is evil. And if he's not omnipotent, he's not God.")
Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial
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Last updated: 12 October 2000.