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Saddest time for Venezuela flood survivors

THE SPARKLE has gone from the Christmas decorations; the merry jingles strike a jarring note. With thousands of bodies buried beyond hope of recovery and tens of thousands bereaved and homeless, Venezuelans are finding it hard to summon up the festive spirit.

It may never be known how many people died when avalanches of mud and boulders were unleashed by torrential rains on December 15, crashing down the mountain that separates the capital Caracas from the Caribbean Sea. But officials say the number is in the thousands, ranging anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000.

"I don't even want to be here, but I have to be," said Lucia, the supervisor in a children's toys and clothes shop called Comic's Mania. "My brother escaped the disaster by a miracle and my husband is a rescue worker - I'm feeling really low." Her husband, a mountaineer and hang-gliding fanatic, saved a six-month-old baby that was buried up to its neck in mud. The rest of the family has not been found, she says.

The Sambil centre in Caracas, where Lucia works, is South America's biggest US-style shopping mall. Five floors of glittering consumerism, open 365 days a year for the tiny sliver of the Venezuelan population with money in their pockets. Nowhere in this fantasy world - which, according to its in-house magazine, "attracts those of a noble spirit, those who believe in brotherhood and the positive side of humanity" - is there the slightest sign of the tragedy unfolding outside.

"On the contrary," said a security guard, who declined to give his name. "Even the basement floor is collapsing under the weight of shoppers." Lucia said: "For the people who come here to shop, it's as if it never happened. They feel they weren't affected." Not all the shoppers are so insensitive, however. "We're from La Guaira," said Mirna Perez, here with her husband to pick out a present for their small son. "What kind of Christmas spirit do you think we have?"

La Guaira is in Vargas state, the scene of the worst destruction. Mirna, who works at the international airport of Maiquetia, lost many colleagues and friends in the flood disaster, although her own house was untouched. "There will be a Christmas of course," she said. "But lots of people have taken down their decorations." Everyone agrees that the worst part is the suffering of the children. "Opposite my house, in the church of San Pedro, there are 200 orphaned kids," said Lucia. "It gives me a lump in my throat. What can they possibly do for them?"

Plans are already under way to entertain the thousands of children who will be living in temporary accommodation - many of them in military barracks - over the Christmas period. At Fuerte Tiuna, the main army base in Caracas, the commander of the Venezuelan army and the defence minister's wife will be handing out presents on Christmas Eve, and there will be clowns and bouncy castles. Rumours that the army commander will be dressed as Father Christmas have not been confirmed.

There is some concern on the part of relief workers that Christmas, on top of the inevitable fatigue the volunteer helpers are experiencing, will cause a decline in contributions. Already, the aid collection centres say food and other supplies are not arriving at the same rate as in the early days of the disaster.

Carmen de Diaz, a volunteer at a relief centre in the Caracas district of El Paraiso, said efforts to persuade traders at a nearby market to contribute had met with little success. "It was terribly difficult to get them to give us even a slice of meat," she said. "They told us, `We already contributed'."

Slowly, the country is coming to terms with the fact that the aftermath of the disaster will be around for months, if not years.

"The biggest problem comes now," said Carmen de Diaz. "These people are just starting to open their eyes, to wake up to reality." Francisco Ludena, a Spanish Red Cross delegate, made a similar point. "I sincerely hope President Chavez's promises materialise," he said.

"Unfortunately, from experience I believe we should prepare ourselves for the opposite." Nor will the depression easily lift after Christmas and the new year.

"The trauma of seeing the face of death, and on top of that losing everything you have - it lasts," Ludena said. "It's a brutal shock."