Wounds too deep for joy

Wars and natural disasters have left victims deaf to any notions of optimism.

EVEN IN parts of the world where Christmas does not mean much, the approach of the Christian millennium will lead to much international soul-searching and vows to break with the past.

There are some places, however - Chechnya, Kosovo, Orissa and Venezuela - where the wounds of war or natural disaster are so fresh that talk of a new age will seem insensitive or irrelevant. For these people the consequences of 1999 will linger on well into the next century. "There's no Christmas here," said Maryori Romero, 30, one of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who found themselves in shelters yesterday, or simply camped out in the rubble.

"The holiday hurts the most because we have lost loved ones," said Aura Gonzalez, cradling her two-year-old son in a sports arena now sheltering hundreds of homeless. "It wouldn't matter if we had nothing, not even to eat, if we could have our family members here."

Outside the capital, Caracas, parents desperate for food and water resigned themselves to a Christmas without gifts for the children, which are traditionally delivered both by the Baby Jesus and by Santa Claus. "I told my children the Baby Jesus isn't coming this year," said Mireya Casana, 33, as she broke into sobs.

Elsewhere in the world, man-made tragedy continued as normal. The Russians, who mark Christmas on 7 January under the Orthodox tradition, chose yesterday to begin their final assault on the Chechen capital, Grozny. Islamist hijackers who seized an Indian Airlines Airbus wrangled with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan after at least one death on board. And the people of Ivory Coast, normally one of Africa's most stable countries, woke up yesterday to scattered shooting in the streets as a mutiny over pay turned into a full-scale coup. Late on Christmas Eve, a retired general, Robert Guei, appeared in uniform on television to declare himself the country's new ruler. France announced it was sending troops to protect its nationals and economic interests.

Yesterday General Guei, seemingly following a script that must appear in some military manual, announced a nine-member "public salvation council" with himself at its head, promised to "restore law and order" and sent the deposed president, Henri Konan Bedie, under military escort to Abidjan's international airport, from where he was expected to fly to France. Elections would be held, said the new leader, but it was too early to say when.

In Belgrade, the Roman Catholic Archbishop France Perko, whose diocese covers most of Serbia, urged "forgiveness and reconciliation" among all the feuding ethnic groups in the Balkans, despite "no sincere wish for reconciliation on any of the sides". Most Catholics in the Balkans are Croats, although Christmas was also being celebrated yesterday by the small Albanian Catholic community in Kosovo, which is also one of the few places where a number of Muslims go to midnight Mass. In Pristina's only Roman Catholic church, Kosovo Liberation Army heroes Hashim Thaqi and Agim Ceku rubbed shoulders with peace-keeping troops and UN staff. In Bethlehem, where it all began, about 15,000 Christians gathered to mark the last Christmas Eve of the millennium, undeterred by US terrorism warnings, chill winds and rain.

Although the Palestinians went out of their way not to use the occasion to brandish their political emblems, Yasser Arafat's wife, Soha, seized on the occasion to publicise the cause. "We hope that the millennium will be a different one, one in which we will see our Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital," she said.

The festivities did not mask the nervousness felt in the Holy Land. Fears abound that apocalyptic cults will mark the millennium by stirring up violence. The security anxieties have not been welcome in some quarters. The Israeli security services and the FBI have been for months monitoring the movement of potential Doomsday cultists - and the authorities have thrown out several dozen people from Israel, many of whom turned out to be harmless. The next few days will be a test of how well they have done their homework.

Additional reporting by Alex Duval Smith in Johannesburg and Phil Reeves in Bethlehem

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