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Emmanuels odyssey: From birth in jungle, childhood of anguish, now back with mother
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    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’ 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 now held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, Colombia’s largest rebel group.
    Some time in 2003, Rojas became pregnant. She later said the father was one of her guerrilla captors whom she never saw again, and that he may not know he is the boy’s father — if he is alive at all.
    Emmanuel’s life was marred by trauma from its very beginning. According to Rojas, he suffered a broken arm as a male nurse among the rebels delivered him via Caesarean section, conducted with a kitchen knife and anesthesia. Creature comforts were rudimentary, and Betancourt sewed him clothes from blankets and sang him French lullabies. The baby developed 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 house, cramped and with a roof of corrugated metal, with his wife, five children, father-in-law and Emmanuel, according to two middle-aged women interviewed last week as they sat in the shade of a tree just down a dirt track.
    The women, who gave their names only as Paula and Carolina because they feared retaliation by the rebels, told The Associated Press that Gomez would sit on the porch drinking beer and ignoring the wails of children inside.
    Carolina said Gomez, 37, would ‘‘buy marijuana and booze, and let his children go hungry.’’
    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 pedigree.
    ‘‘I saw that poor little baby boy, but no one knew who he was,’’ Carolina said. ‘‘He let the boy’s hair grow long and he told us all that it was a baby girl. Can you believe it?’’
    The AP could not reach Gomez, who is in Bogota with his family under police protection.
    He took Emmanuel to a nearby hospital for a checkup in June 2005, saying the boy was his nephew and giving his name as Juan David Gomez. Doctors found the baby’s arm still not properly healed, signs of severe malnutrition and symptoms of malaria, in addition to the parasite.
    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 and then returns to sleep,’’ the report said.
    His life apparently improved, and he learned to walk and talk. According to Elvira Cuervo, head of the child welfare agency, ‘‘he is an open child who establishes relationships easily and likes to give hugs.’’
    Meanwhile, in the jungles, a sequence of events began to transform Juan David back into Emmanuel.
    In a 2006 book, journalist Jorge Enrique Botero revealed that Rojas had given birth to a son. The rebels’ septuagenarian leader, Manuel Marulanda, was quoted as saying: ‘‘The boy is a little bit of us, and a little bit of them.’’
    In early 2007, a police sergeant escaped from captivity and disclosed Emmanuel’s name.
    And in December, after the rebels announced they would release Rojas, her son and a congresswoman, rebels sought out Gomez, believing he still had the boy, he told investigators.
    ‘‘He was very nervous,’’ said his neighbor Paula. ‘‘He drank a lot more than normal and was always in a bad mood. ... Now we know why.’’
    Gomez went to the local ombudsman’s office to try to get the boy back. But by then military intelligence had begun to piece together the story — and suspected that Emmanuel was in Bogota.
    On Dec. 31, President Alvaro Uribe announced that the rebels couldn’t hand over Emmanuel because they likely didn’t have him. DNA tests later confirmed that Juan David was Emmanuel. It was a huge embarrassment for the guerrillas.
    Gomez fled with his family in the night.
    ‘‘A lot of different men came around looking for him,’’ Carolina told the AP. ‘‘They said they were his friends, but kept on asking where he went to. If he returns, the guerrillas will kill him.’’
    In a statement dated Jan. 2, the guerrillas said they gave the baby away because ‘‘Emmanuel could not be in the middle of military operations.’’ They didn’t say why they had entrusted an infirm 8-month-old to man of dubious credentials.
    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.
    Rojas, now 44, was freed Thursday, and authorities say they hope to deliver the boy to her care in the coming days. On Sunday, they were finally reunited for a six-hour visit.
    ‘‘Throw me a kiss,’’ a smiling Rojas asked her son in video released by authorities.
    Rojas is now asking journalists for privacy so she can build a new life with Emmanuel. But already, she said: ‘‘Our hearts and souls are in tune.’’
    Associated Press writers Tatiana Guerrero, Cesar Garcia and Frank Bajak in Bogota contributed to this report.

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