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After the earthquake, a post-apocalypse world straight out of Dickens or Kafka

THE SCENE was how you might imagine a post- apocalypse world to look: part-Dickens, part-Kafka, pitch black with only flickering campfires to light hollow faces that didn't bother to look up at passing strangers.

As I walked through this earthquake-demolished Colombian town in the thick darkness before dawn yesterday, I felt as though everything was happening in slow motion.

Armenia was the worst-hit town in Monday's quake, accounting for two- thirds of the 750 officially confirmed dead so far.

But it was not the odour of death, the lines of bodies in the morgue or even the eerie feeling that people were still alive in the rubble of buildings that sent chills up the spine.

It was the way tens of thousands of residents lined the streets in small clusters, huddled in ragged blankets outside their destroyed, damaged or endangered homes throughout the night.

Still numbed by the quake and a series of aftershocks - the latest yesterday morning just after 1am - most gazed blankly into their pine campfires as this lone figure stopped by to ask for their stories. But not all. One woman, 43-year-old Maria Eugenia Castro, insisted I drink her small cup of steaming-hot tinto, or black coffee, even though she said she hadn't eaten in the 36 hours since the quake brought down her apartment ceiling. Another, Maria Olga Moraes, 32, held up the half inch-tall remnant of her last white candle so that I could take notes when I peeked under the plastic and corrugated-iron awning that now serves as home for her family, including her 60-year-old mother and six-year-old niece, Leidi.

Others begged me to ask world leaders where reported aid was going since they had so far seen none and needed food, blankets, candles, plastic covering from the rain.

As officials ordered the digging of mass graves and put out an urgent call for coffins, Armenia by night - with all electric power down - conjured up the end of the world.

Elderly men, women and children huddled together in heavy drizzle, most under sheets of plastic held up by pine or wax palm trunks but some under single blankets in fields or other open spaces. When dawn broke, some approached their homes to pick at the rubble with their bare hands in the hope of finding loved ones.

Many referred to the day's radio reports of the arrival of aid and rescue helpers from Mexico, Japan, the US, and even a team of Scottish thermal image experts to trace survivors amid the rubble. But almost all said not an iota of food, clothing, blankets or anything else had reached them. Nor had any officials visited them to see their plight at first hand, they said.

Rescuers pulled out two little girls alive early yesterday who were trapped for 36 hours. One woman, now known here as the Music Box Lady, was not so lucky. When rescuers called out, the woman did not reply but a music box began to play. The rescuers assumed she could not speak and was trying to prove she was alive. By the time they reached her, however, she had died and her music box had fallen silent.

On the main square of Armenia - so-named because of its late 19th-century founders came from that country - rescuers yesterday dug at the rubble of a five-storey apartment block and a popular corner cafe called Sandwich Cubano. Officials estimate scores of people were lunching in the cafe when Monday's earthquake hit at 1.19pm and scores more were in the 27 apartments above.

Standing alongside the rubble, dotted by pieces of clothing, shoes, pillows, an old fridge, you could easily imagine people still in there, perhaps trapped in a space with air, frustrated, desperate, unable to alert the rescuers. After Mexico City's big 1985 earthquake, survivors were pulled out up to eight days later.

Armenia was by no means a poor town. Next to the cafe, the Bolivar Theatre, most of which collapsed, would have been frequented by wealthy cattle ranchers or coffee farmers. Across the central Bolivar square, the regional parliament had slid sideways across the main 14th Avenue while its taller neighbour, the regional Interior Ministry building, stood straight with nothing but a few cracks on its facade.

Next to the latter, a woman called Amanda Lopez stood all day staring at the rubble of an apartment block, removing debris with her hands, convinced her mother Mercedes would eventually emerge alive. Rescuers were nowhere to be seen.

Climbing the rubble of the same building, a middle-aged man poked at where he thought his apartment might have ended up in the disaster, then let out a yell of horror, saying he had just seen his young daughter's arm.

Around the square, the newly homeless slept on the neat red brick surface, many of them covered only by blankets in heavy drizzle.

Officials estimated up to 250,000 people were now living rough here and in the rest of the so-called Cauca Valley, heartland of Colombia's coffee industry.

In the city of Pereira, 25 miles from here, residents emerged to see widespread damage and at least 30 dead but found that the city's most famous statue had survived.

It is known as the Naked Bolivar and shows South America's liberation hero without clothes, an unprecedented avant garde work that caused shock when unveiled in 1963 but later won acceptance as a quirky town attraction.