December 18, 1999

Panama prepares to act out trauma of U.S. invasion

                  PANAMA CITY (Reuters) -- Residents of a Panama City suburb set
                  ablaze in the December 1989 U.S. invasion to oust military strongman Gen.
                  Manuel Noriega are set to act out their collective trauma at a macabre
                  anniversary rite on Sunday.

                  Every year since the December 20 invasion, residents of the capital's El
                  Chorrillo district have built a model of one of the razed homes from their
                  community using tires, cardboard boxes and boards, only to torch it once
                  more, the rite's organiser, Hector Avila, told Reuters.

                  "Before we burn it, we are going to put Chinese explosives (powerful
                  firecrackers) inside, and throw rockets at it as if it were the U.S. attack,"
                  Avila said.

                  "When it's alight, the adults from the barrio are going to rescue the children.
                  We'll have black bags filled with beef to represent the bodies," he added.

                  The dark rite, which represents a working through of the inner city
                  neighbourhood's human losses, involves a cast of 50 adults and children.

                  "We do it so as not to forget what happened here, and so that people know
                  how their neighbors died," Avila added.

                  The U.S. government has estimated that 300 Panamanians died in the
                  invasion, but Panamanian human rights groups say the civilian death toll was
                  3,500. The number who died in El Chorrillo is unknown. Eighteen U.S.
                  servicemen were killed.

                  The all-out assault, which involved 26,000 troops -- including elite Navy
                  Seals, Army Rangers and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division -- began with
                  a barrage of artillery fire a few minutes before midnight on December 19,

                  Chorrillo residents recall watching from their homes as the full explosive
                  force of the largest U.S. military operation since the Vietnam War rained
                  down on the Comandancia, the former headquarters of Noriega's
                  Panamanian Defence Forces.

                  "It was excessive, too much. ... It was a war without resistance," Damaris
                  Sanchez, a street stall merchant, told Reuters, recalling the sustained artillery
                  fire from nearby Ancon Hill, and the deafening salvos of rockets unleashed
                  from hovering Apache helicopter gunships.

                  El Chorrillo was built at the turn of the century to house day labourers
                  working on the Panama Canal. Residents said the district's close-set
                  wooden terraces caught fire as stray rounds set alight propane gas tanks
                  used for domestic cooking.

                  "It burned very quickly," Sanchez said, pointing to the barren concrete
                  landmarks that have replaced the wooden homes that once lined the three
                  main streets in the heart of the low-income community. "From one day to the
                  next you couldn't recognise El Chorrillo."

                  U.S. President George Bush ordered the invasion, dubbed "Operation Just
                  Cause" by Defence Secretary Dick Cheney, to seize Noriega and bring him
                  back to trial in the United States and to safeguard the lives of American
                  residents in Panama.

                  Noriega, who subsequently took refuge in the Vatican Embassy,
                  surrendered to U.S. forces on January 3, 1990, to be arraigned on multiple
                  drug-trafficking and racketeering charges in Miami the next day. He is
                  serving a 30-year sentence in a Florida prison.

                  As El Chorrillo readied to exorcise its shared demons on the 10th
                  anniversary of the invasion on Sunday night, local resident Orlando Jimenez
                  remained adamant that the military intervention was unnecessary.

                  "We paid the price for an invasion which other people called a just cause,"
                  he said. "They did not have to sacrifice the community to take out Noriega."