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."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
The Queen and the letter sent to Charlie
Arts and Entertainment
Eurovision Song Contest 2015
EurovisionGoogle marks the 2015 show
Two lesbians hold hands at a gay pride parade.
peopleIrish journalist shares moving story on day of referendum
Arts and Entertainment
<b>Kathryn Williams</b>
When I was supporting Ray La Montagne I was six months pregnant. He had been touring for a year and he was exhausted and full of the cold. I was feeling motherly, so I would leave presents for him and his band: Tunnock's Tea Cakes, cold remedies and proper tea. Ray seemed painfully shy. He hardly spoke, hardly looked at you in the face. I felt like a dick speaking to him, but said "hi" every day. </p>
He was being courted by the same record company who had signed me and subsequently let me go, and I wanted him to know that there were people around who didn't want anything from him. At the Shepherds Bush Empire in London, on the last night of the tour, Ray stopped in his set to thank me for doing the support. He said I was a really good songwriter and people should buy my stuff. I was taken aback and felt emotionally overwhelmed. Later that year, just before I had my boy Louis, I was l asleep in bed with Radio 4 on when Louis moved around in my belly and woke me up. Ray was doing a session on the World Service. </p>
I really believe that Louis recognised the music from the tour, and when I gave birth to him at home I played Ray's record as something that he would recognise to come into the world with. </p>
booksKathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
Liz Kendall played a key role in the introduction of the smoking ban
newsLiz Kendall: profile
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?