Tearful reunions held in Colombia

Published June 17, 2001|Updated Sept. 10, 2005

For police officer Alfonso Rodriguez, embracing his wife and his mother on his release from the Colombian rebel prison camp where he spent the past two years was like being reborn.

"I feel like a new person; I can't describe how it feels," he said Saturday after Colombia's most powerful insurgency released him and 28 other ailing officers and soldiers as part of a landmark prisoner swap expected to breathe new life into peace talks between the government and rebels.

Eleven sick members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were freed from a maximum-security prison and taken to a rebel safe haven in the jungles of southern Colombia.

The officers and soldiers were airlifted to a nearby army base where anxious relatives greeted them with wails of joy and tears of disbelief.

Rodriguez, 38, was speechless as he wrapped his wife, Edilma, in his arms and reached out to grab his mother Concepcion's hand at the base in Florencia, Caqueta.

Alfonso's father, Hector Rodriquez, watched the reunion on television from his Bogota apartment.

"I hope he retires from the police now," the elder Rodriguez said after speaking to his son by cell phone.

But Alfonso said that once he recovers from colon problems he intends to pick up where he left off when he was forced to surrender to the FARC during a two-day siege on the town of Puerto Rico, Meta, in July 1999.

"For me it's very clear. I plan to return. I never regretted being a policeman," Rodriguez said before flying to Bogota Saturday.

Under the agreement, the freed rebels, who suffer from ailments ranging from hemorrhoids to kidney problems, are barred from returning to military operations.

"They can work in agriculture, journalism, propaganda, whatever," FARC spokesman Raul Reyes said. "The FARC isn't just about combat."

The guerrillas were greeted with warm embraces from the FARC's top commanders and by a military parade of 300 rebels.

The agreement originally included the release of 15 rebels, but one chose to stay in prison. Judicial officials are studying the cases of the other three.

The mass release came 11 days after the liberation of police Col. Alvaro Acosta, the most critically ill of those held by the FARC. Acosta was being treated for partial paralysis, pneumonia, depression and other ailments.

Over the next three days, 26 servicemen will be released from other parts of the country, the rebels said. Once the swap is complete, the FARC has said it would unilaterally free 100 of the roughly 400 soldiers and officers held in rebel camps.

But as the nation celebrated, government and human rights officials blasted FARC's plans to continue kidnapping civilians.

The swap agreement was the first concrete result of two years of peace talks to end the nation's 37-year civil conflict and government officials said it should pave the way to other agreements.

"What we most want is that the peace talks and negotiations progress to a point where we can sign a definitive peace agreement," said human rights activist Ana Teresa Bernal.

But the political significance of the swap was largely lost on the Rodriguez family.

Alfonso Rodriguez said his most burning desire was to embrace his infant son, Gabriel, born three months after his capture.

"I only know him in photographs. I am so anxious to hold him," Rodriguez said before returning to Bogota where Gabriel and his two other children, ages 7 and 10, awaited.

Jordan Rodriguez, 7, who played with a cousin in Bogota oblivious to his father's liberation, gripped the phone nervously not recognizing the voice on the other end of the line.

"Who is this?" he asked. Then after a pause, Jordan grinned and screamed "Daddy? Daddy, when are you coming home?"

Then Jordan stood up and sang the Colombian national anthem with his father.