PANAMA CITY, Panama -- For U.S. troops, Christmas would be another tense, dangerous day under Panama's tropical sun, far from the dreams of a white Christmas at home.
For Panamanians, there were few gifts and little Christmas festivity. Many don't even have their homes.
More than 9,000 Panamanians whose dwellings were destroyed during the U.S. invasion have crowded into a refugee camp on the grounds of Balboa High School, near Quarry Heights. Many have mixed emotions. Some say they are happy that Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega has been ousted from power, but that Christmas in a refugee camp can hardly be merry.
'I won't have any Christmas,' said Cecilia Rivera, whose house in the El Chorrillo neighborhood near the Panamanian Defense Forces headquarters burned down Wednesday morning shortly after 24,000 U.S. combat troops launched their assault. 'Everything in El Chorrillo burned. We lost everything.'
Rivera said the U.S. troops have provided medicine and food, including hamburgers, rice, fruit-flavored beverages and military C-rations.
'The Noriega guerrillas, they had to be attacked,' Rivera said, leaning on a broom.
'We're not in favor of anyone saying Merry Christmas because there is nothing merry about it this year,' said Lisa Versayo, who lives in the working-class neighborhood of San Miguelito.
'A lot of people have died who didn't have to die,' said Versayo, who added that tuna and milk would be her Christmas meal.
On Sunday, people bathed in the sun, listening to radios. The camp is surrounded by razor wire and guarded by U.S. troops. But the refugees are free to leave, the guard said.
Lino Lakey, 36, of the Chiriqui area, was barechested, dressed only in red shorts. His home also burned and he had no presents for his children, who were asleep on blankets on the front lawn of the high school.
The grounds of the high school have become a tent city of refugees. They sleep on cardboard and blankets on the football field and in the gymnasium under a basketball backboard.
Portable toilets line the parking lot and people drink from hoses extended from water tanker trucks.
'I wanted to be home by Christmas,' said a soldier from the U.S. 7th Infantry Brigade, Fort Ord, Calif., at a post in Rio Hato, a town 110 miles west of Panama City.
'We didn't even know we were coming here,' said the soldier, who would not reveal his name. 'They told us we were going to another part of the United States for training. Then we got here and they handed us live ammunition.'
In Panama City, U.S. soldiers sitting in armored personnel carriers waiting to go out on patrol said that, for them, Christmas will probably another tense day on the streets.
'It really hasn't sunk in yet,' said Lt. Jeff Smith, 27, of Austin, Texas. 'I know my wife and kids are pretty torn up about it. Our platoon has driven through a couple of ambushes.' He pointed to the cracked windshield of the carrier.
Pfc. David Wilson, of Marysville, Wash., said that Monday was his second Christmas away from home. He said his mother is worried about him. 'I'm sure she's probably glued to the TV right now,' he said.
Sgt. Aristotle Parianos of Cleveland spit tobacco and talked with bravado. He said it was about time the United States invaded and that it was better now rather than later.
'We're on battalion call, so whenever they need us to come down and fire up a building we go down and take it out,' he said.
Sgt. Willie Ferguson of Cincinnati said his wife, who lives near Fort Clayton in Panama, will be worried about him Monday.
'I just found out she's pregnant, so Christmas away from her is going to be kind of hard. She's taking it OK, I guess.'