The disaster

For the town of Yungay and its neighboring villages, May 31, 1970 was “like Judgment Day,” according to the testimonies of its survivors. In just a few moments the so-called Yungay Hermosura disappeared under thousands of tons of ice and rocks. There were those who made a religious reading of the catastrophe, the sacred mountain of the peoples of the valley, the Huascaran, had annihilated the city that once could represent the pride of the conquistadors first and the Creole elite later.

The direct survivors of the tragedy barely numbered three hundred human beings, girls, boys, men and women who had lost almost everything and who for several days were left shivering in small groups in the open (the cemetery, the hill of Atma, Runtu…), without water, without food, without news of their loved ones, alone on the muddy plain that covered their city and a dark fog that hid it.

They learned to decant the water from the mud with the women’s stockings and a mince of cactus leaves, they got hold of the food stored in little shops, empty houses and haciendas, and they also received help from the inhabitants of the mountain villages, whom the leaders had historically looked down upon with disdain.

Help from the government, overwhelmed by the dimensions of the tragedy throughout the country, was slow to arrive and when it did, it was accompanied by a strict order. They were to leave that place and look for safer places. A handful of yungaínos refused. “Yungay stays!” they proclaimed. They knew that if they left, their history would be lost forever.

The city was rebuilt a kilometer away from the old main square, still marked by the trunks of four palm trees. New settlers joined its streets. Today it has about 10,000 inhabitants, mostly from nearby villages and the Callejón de Conchucos, on the other side of the Huascarán.

The new Yungay overflows the safety margins of the hill behind which it was built to protect it from new avalanches, while the glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca are melting at an ever-increasing rate. It is estimated that this century they will disappear completely and, with them, the water that provides drinking water for people and livestock and irrigates the fields.

Although its inhabitants know they are under the threat of a new tragedy, the city seems increasingly immersed in the contemporary world, with its motorcycle cabs, cell phones, connection to social networks, but disconnected from its past. Fifty years after the tragedy, those who survived it struggle to preserve their memory while there are those who take advantage of the plain of the cemetery to establish their farms or “exploit the tourist potential of the place”.