Venezuela: It was supposed to be a happy day

Red Cross volunteers Gregor Nassief and Abraham Blanco report from Caracas
It was supposed to be a happy day and in many ways it was. The Red Cross made a wonderful effort to visit ten shelters in Caracas to "put a smile on each child's face". They visited the shelters in buses packed with the very same Red Cross volunteers who had spent the previous night wrapping gifts for the two thousand children whose spirits they wanted to lift, even if in a small way. Accompanying the buses were cars with Venezuela's most popular actors, actresses and singers, who surprised the children with their presence and presents.

The project was a real effort in collaboration, and a testament to what can be done when enough people care and are willing to give of themselves. The Red Cross co-ordinated many of the activities.

It was supposed to be a happy day, but in many ways it wasn't. Every shelter we visited was filled with a sense of sadness and uncertainty. Some, like the garage of the Central University stadium, where parking lots had been converted to temporary living spaces, were plastered with photos of missing persons. People walked around aimlessly wondering whether their loved ones will ever be found, wondering about their fate.

"There are over 1,000 people here and there are over 30 shelters like this one," said Esther Weisenthal, Head of the Graduate Programme for Social Psychology at the Central University.

If you mustered the courage to talk to any of the families, you heard the same story over and over again, like a tape recording with a different voice and a difference face. Antonio Madrid with wife Norma and daughters Marissa and Jennifer were among the lucky ones who stayed awake throughout the night of 15 December listening to the raging rivers, waiting for them to break their banks. Then the thunder came. From the top floor of their three-storey house in Vargas, they scrambled down the stairs with nothing in hand save their two children, and headed for lower ground, and watched their house surrender to the raging mud slides as if made of paper. Norma's sister was not so lucky. She tried to save friends and family and perished with her young daughter. Norma's mother met a similar fate.

As we go to sleep tonight in our warm beds and secure homes, we cannot forget the fate of those families, and especially those children. In many ways they are counting on us.

©1997 International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies