Chilean families set up homes, hair salon at mine
Mon, Oct 11, 2010

COPIAPO, CHILE - When 33 miners became trapped deep beneath Chile's Atacama desert on August 5, ordinary life for their families went on hold, but they cobbled together a makeshift community near the mine's mouth.

The settlement relatives have established, which they have dubbed Camp Hope, is testament to the agonizing two-month wait that is expected to end with the miners' rescue this week. Photos of the stranded miners, messages of support and religious icons decorate the temporary tent homes and rocky environs of Camp Hope.

"Jimmy, what happened in these rocks is one of God's miracles," is daubed across one of the huge boulders strewn around the mine in the arid region in Chile's far north.

It is addressed to Jimmy Sanches, at 19 the youngest of the miners trapped in a chamber almost half a mile (625 metres) underground for more than two months. For the first 17 days, the men had no contact with the outside world and their families feared the worst.

But beyond the round-the-clock vigil, anxiety and prayers, the families of Camp Hope have kept themselves busy making their wait under the burning desert sun and freezing nights as comfortable as possible.

Camp fires in front of the tents illuminate the nights in one of the driest spots on earth. During the day, they serve to boil water for the bitter, green mate tea sipped from gourds through a metal straw in much of South America.

Facilities have sprung up fast. There are public toilets, a school room to help children keep up with their studies and a cafe serving lunch and dinner.

There is even a clown to keep the youngest residents entertained. On Sunday, as the families celebrated the imminent rescue of their loved ones, children donned fancy dress and scampered between the tents singing and squealing.

In one tent, there is even an improvised beauty parlor.

"I need to look better than ever for him," said Cristina Nunez, the partner of miner Claudio Yanez, after having her hair tinted a reddish color at the on-site salon.

Camp Hope's cafe lies behind an altar laden with statuettes of the Virgin Mary, miners' helmets and letters from the absent men, sent up from the depths through a system of ducts.

Some of the relatives want to maintain the encampment.

Maria Segovia, sister of miner Dario, has proposed keeping it as it is for holidays.

Carlos Alvarez, nephew of miner Daniel Herrera, says it should be turned into a museum. Others say the 33 Chilean flags flying from the top of a hill overlooking the camp should remain forever.

Alvarez is one of the camp dwellers who quit his job when the accident plunged families into uncertainty 66 days ago. "I'm a qualified chef, but as soon as this started, I gave it up. It's a problem, but you've got to stick by your family,"he said.

As soon as she heard about the cave-in in August, Segovia left her home and job as a cook in the north of the country and took a bus to Copiapo, the nearest town to the San Jose mine.

She has been criticized by other relatives for stealing the limelight. Some have accused her of charging for her appearances on a local television show.

Segovia denied that and said that like other residents of Camp Hope, she is just looking forward to getting on with her life with the homecoming of husbands, fathers and brothers.

She said her priority was to get back to cooking "the best pies in Chile."

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