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A mother's ordeal in jungle ends

Former hostage reunited with son

Clara Rojas was reunited with her son Emmanuel Sunday in Bogota. Rojas gave birth to Emmanuel when she was a hostage. Clara Rojas was reunited with her son Emmanuel Sunday in Bogota. Rojas gave birth to Emmanuel when she was a hostage. (afp/getty images)
Email|Print| Text size + By Toby Muse
Associated Press / January 15, 2008

EL RETORNO, Colombia - On April 16, 2004, an urbane lawyer being held hostage in a guerrilla camp deep in the Colombian jungle gave birth to a boy. The child was delivered by Caesarean section performed with a kitchen knife.

Clara Rojas named him Emmanuel - Hebrew for "God is with us" - because she thought of him as a gift from God. The boy was not yet a year old when Rojas's jailers snatched the gift away.

Three years passed before Rojas was freed last week and reunited with her son, and now a portrait is emerging of a childhood odyssey of anguish and hardship for the boy - a tale that for some Colombians symbolizes the heartache of their country's decades-long conflict.

Rojas was kidnapped in February 2002 alongside her boss, presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, joining the ranks of what the government says are 750 captives held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group.

Some time in 2003, Rojas became pregnant. She said the father was one of her guerrilla captors whom she never saw again.

Emmanuel's life was marred by trauma from its very beginning. According to Rojas, he suffered a broken arm as a nurse among the rebels delivered him via Caesarean section. Creature comforts were rudimentary, and Betancourt sewed him clothes from blankets and sang him French lullabies. The baby suffered from leishmaniasis, a jungle parasite.

The rebels took Emmanuel from his mother on Jan. 23, 2005.

They handed him over to a peasant, Jose Crisanto Gomez, in the guerrilla stronghold of Guaviare state, a furnace of vast plains and dense tropical forests that is home to seas of coca that fuel Colombia's conflict.

Gomez took the boy to El Retorno, a poor ranching town in a contested region where the army forbids road travel by night. There is a saying here: "The smaller the village, the bigger the hell."

Gomez shared his tiny house with his wife, five children, father-in-law, and Emmanuel, according to two middle-aged women interviewed last week.

The women, who gave their names only as Paula and Carolina because they feared retaliation by the rebels, said Gomez would sit on the porch drinking beer and ignoring the wails of children inside.

A social worker, in a report recently released by the government, said the boy was kept locked up alone, without food or drink. No one in the neighborhood had any idea of the child's background.

"I saw that poor little baby boy, but no one knew who he was," Carolina said.

Gomez took Emmanuel to a hospital for a checkup in June 2005, saying the boy was his nephew. Doctors found the boy's arm still not properly healed, signs of severe malnutrition, and symptoms of malaria.

Suspecting abuse, doctors sent the baby to a hospital, and that same month, the state welfare agency seized the boy and placed him in a nearby group home.

In April 2006, he moved to Bogota, where foster parents took him in. There, according to an August 2006 medical report, the child was healthy and social but slightly behind in development. At age 2, he was still unable to walk.

"During the night, he usually wakes up and calls for his mother," the report said.

Emmanuel was moved into a group home 11 days ago to ready him for a return to his mother. Child welfare officials had only a week to prepare Emmanuel, showing him photos of his mother and maternal grandmother and teaching him his real name.

On Sunday, Rojas and Emmanuel were reunited for a six-hour visit. Authorities hope the reunion will be permanent in the next few days. Already, Rojas said, "Our hearts and souls are in tune."

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