Column One: How floods carried me off to the garden of the dead

Click to follow
IN A SEA of tears, Leona Mantilla has shed more than her fair share. But the worst of the pain is not from her broken knee or ribs, or any other part of her bruised and scratched body.

A week ago the grandmother aged 55 was swept from a roof near her home in Marapa, Venezuela, and carried downstream at night for about three miles, with rocks, tree trunks, cars, and an untold number of neighbours and friends.

When she last glimpsed them, her daughter Joan, 21, and twelve-year-old grand-daughter, Marion, were still struggling to hang on as the waters rose to 20 feet above their normal level and the solidly built houses around them were smashed to pieces by rocks and debris.

The only thing she managed to shout, as the river tore her from her daughter's grasp, was "Cuidate!" - take care.

Leona attributes her own survival to a combination of sheer bloody-mindedness ("I've always had a bad character") and knicker elastic.

The river tore off almost all her clothes, but after she temporarily lost consciousness her underwear caught in a branch and prevented her being swept further downstream.

Twice she had to pop her knee back into place with a blow, to enable herself to move. After several hours of near- despair - cold, wet and naked - she found herself quite literally "in Christ's garden.

"I realised I was in a garden belonging to a man we nicknamed `Christ'," she says. Some neighbours found and rescued her and took her to a house where survivors had gathered.

At dawn she left, hobbling through the debris with the help of a broomhandle, in a desperate attempt to find Joan and Marion. But the scene she encountered was of such appalling horror that she had to turn back.

"Dead children, men, women, old people, bodies jammed in windows. Severed heads and legs, it was horrible," she sobbed. "I was too afraid."

Now recovering from her injuries, Leona sits in a plastic chair in the improvised refuge set up in a multi-storey car park at the University Stadium in Caracas. In her lap she clutches photographs of her daughter and grand-daughter, refusing to give them up for dead.

There is no news of Joan. One body she was assured was that of her daughter turned out to be someone else.

But some people speak of a girl who resembles Marion, severely injured but still alive. They say she has a broken back. Until she finds them it is hard to imagine a future. But with thousands of bodies buried under tons of mud and rock, the chances look heartbreakingly slim. The house she lived in for 11 years is gone, with most of the neighbourhood. Even the clothes she wears belong to someone else.

All that would matter little if she could find her loved ones. But on one point she is emphatic: "I am never going back to live there, never! All that's there is a lot of rocks and many, many dead."

Worst areas to be emptied,

page 11