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Gondo residents ponder fate of village

Residents of Gondo in canton Valais will soon have to decide whether to return home, after mudslides swept away a third of their village nearly two weeks ago.

The village of Gongo lies between walls of rock and the fast flowing river, Doveria. Engineers say it will always be at risk from natural disaster, even if new safety measures are introduced.

Gondo was home to just 150 inhabitants. They have found temporary shelter in the nearby town of Simplon, while the clean up operation continues.

Gondo still has no water or electricity, and the community centre and post office have been destroyed along with 10 houses, but many of the inhabitants are determined to go back.

"I'll go back as soon as possible,' village mayor, Roland Squaratti, told swissinfo. "The moment the electricity and water are back on I will return with my family."

Mayor Squaratti has scarcely slept since the disaster struck Gondo 11 days ago. Two of his brothers, volunteers in the local fire brigade, were killed in the mudslide, but Squaratti has not given himself time to grieve.

"I can't change what's happened," he says. "That can never be changed, but I can work to re-build my village. I'm just doing what my brothers would have done if they were in my place."

Squaratti has a timetable for the reconstruction of Gondo. "Before it snows we'll have cleaned everything up," he says. "Then over the winter we'll draw up plans for a new post office and new community centre, and for new homes to replace those which were destroyed. In the spring we will build them, and this time next year we will have a nice village again."

But the future of Gondo depends on the willingness of the other inhabitants to return. Local priest, Josef Sarbach, says it's too soon to be sure that everyone will go back.

"At first many people said 'no, we will never return'," he explains. "Now that the initial shock has worn off some are reconsidering, and talking about going home. Certainly the moment the first person goes back I will be there too to re-start church services. It's important to support a return to normal life."

But some families are not convinced it's a good idea to start over again in Gondo. "I think I would be frightened the moment we had heavy rain again," says Beatrice Squaratti, who is a cousin of the mayor.

"My own house and family are safe, but my neighbour's are gone. I've lost good friends. The houses I saw from my windows have disappeared. I don't think Gondo can ever be the same, and I'm not sure I want to go back."

If families with children decide to move elsewhere, the future of Gondo will be threatened. Canton Valais requires at least seven children to run a school, and it remains unclear if Gondo will have enough.

"That is a problem," agrees Mayor Squaratti. "We need to re-build all the infrastructure, including the school, if we are to have a viable community."

But Squaratti is confident the ties of home will prove stronger than the fear of natural disaster.

"We are a mountain people," he says. "We love the mountains, and we know the risks. The people of Gondo could never live in the valleys, we love the mountains and the freedom up here too much."

On Wednesday, funerals took place for six victims of the mudslide, who were killed during recent floods, which left a trail of destruction across canton Valais.

by Imogen Foulkes

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