More than 6,000 Hondurans perished when Hurricane Mitch devastated the Central American country with 140 MPH winds in October of 1998. I witnessed the destruction a few months later serving on a mission trip to help rebuild churches that had been destroyed by Mitch. The massive amount of water dumped on the country before, during, and after the storm had turned rivers into wild ferocities, seeking outlets that were already overflowing.
One afternoon during our week-long trip, a Honduran missionary took me on a short drive to witness firsthand some of the hurricane-impacted rural areas outside the small village where we’d been working. In his sure-footed vehicle, we crept and climbed our way to a tropical rain forest area on a mountainside. Getting out beside a roaring river, my guide explained it was once a serene setting, the river merely a peaceful stream. The sound of its furious surge forced us to shout to hear one another.
He pointed to an area where a wooden footbridge had been washed out by the storm. The bridge, he noted, was the only link to the outside world for those living on the opposite side. I looked to see dozens of run-down shacks dotting the mountainside across the river from me. The community would be cut off until another bridge could be erected, which wouldn't be anytime soon.
As I peered across at the isolated community, I spotted two barefoot girls walking toward the raging river. They were seventy-five yards or so upstream from me, headed for the river with purpose. They looked to be about twelve and eight years old. As the girls neared the water, I began to watch them intently. What they did next will stay with me for the rest of my life.
With determination, the older girl grabbed the younger one and together, they walked straight into the furious river.
“LOOK! What are they doing?”
The missionary turned and saw what I’d been watching.
“Oh no...they’ve been told not to do that.”
“Hey, get out of there!” I yelled, though the girls had no chance of hearing me, let alone understanding the English I spoke.
My guide just shook his head in silence. I sensed this was something he’d witnessed before. We watched helplessly as the older girl battled her way across the raging river, with the younger girl clinging to her, literally for her dear life. At times their little heads were about all we saw bobbing above the water.
The force of the river carried the girls downstream as they finally emerged at a point just below us. They scrambled up the hill toward where we were standing. Dripping wet, their dark eyes met ours and they smiled, continuing on to a small concrete block shanty where they ducked inside.
When they emerged moments later, the younger girl was carrying a cellophane bag. As the girls approached us again, I saw it was a bag of rice. Both girls squealed with joy at the peppermint sticks I’d fished out of my backpack for them.
“Gratias, senor!” And with that, they scurried back down the embankment to return to their side of the river. I was still perplexed by the whole scene.
"That rice is probably all their family will have to eat for next week or so,” my missionary guide shouted in my ear. “Families send children across the river to find food on this side. You see, they send their children, because they’re the most expendable...” His voice trailed off as we nervously watched the two girls fight their way back across the river.
“Ok, but why send both of the children?” I asked, as the little girls climbed out on their side of the river and raced back to their simple shanty with the rice.
“Well, believe or not, the younger one serves as an anchor to keep the older one from being swept away. But, it doesn’t always work. Ten or twelve children have been lost since the bridge washed out.” Looking down the violent river, my throat tightened as I thought of the precious lives that had been swept away by the perilous act that I’d just witnessed.
“Dear God, please remedy this situation,” I whispered under my breath as we climbed back into the missionary’s truck. I didn’t turn back toward the river again, but I didn’t have to. I could still hear its roar for days, months, and now, years after I’d left it.
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