Dispatches from Colombia: Missing Child

Travel Features Colombia
Dispatches from Colombia: Missing Child

Once upon a time in an Atlanta grocery store, I glanced at the colorful cereal boxes on the shelves for a moment too long and let my attention wander. When I looked back, my shopping buggy—with my daughter in it—had vanished. If you’re a parent or a caretaker, you almost certainly know that moment. The explosion of panic. The knee-buckling primal fear. The worst moment in all of life suddenly made real.

A missing child.

Adela, my Colombian fiancée, knows that terror too. When her daughter, Ana Maria, was just three years old, the child vanished in Orlando. Adela and family were on a carefree Disney vacation, a rite of passage for Colombian parents and their kids.

Ana Maria came into the world with an exceedingly rare genetic anomaly, a missing arm of chromosome. Known medically as 5P- (Five P Minus) and informally as Cri du Chat Syndrome, the impairment limits speaking ability. Ana Maria instinctively puts everything she finds into her mouth. She walks like a drunk sailor on a rolling ship deck.

Most perilously, the syndrome inhibits Ana Maria’s capability to feel fear. Heights. The dark. Traffic. Bad animals. Strangers. The child appears unable to comprehend danger of any sort.

You can imagine the bombshell of shock that went off in Adela’s heart when she turned to find an empty space where her daughter had stood only seconds before. Little Ana Maria was suddenly missing—among complete stranger—in a big, confusing public place … in a foreign country.

Children everywhere disappear with shocking frequency. In the USA in 2015, the FBI received and recorded reports of more than 460,000 missing children. In 2016, that number topped 465,000. Consider the figures slightly inflated by reports made for troubled kids that run away from home more than once. But still …

Thankfully, a majority of missing children end up back home. Many runaways return, some voluntarily, some thanks to detective work, some after serving detentions or undergoing treatments. Other children simply wander away, get lost … then get found.

Some children, though, simply vanish.

Luckily … more than luckily, blessedly, I found my own daughter a few aisles over in the grocery store. Her mother had unexpectedly shown up in the store and quietly pushed the cart to a different section, thinking I was paying attention.

When I found my missing child, the terror I felt gave way to ecstatic relief, and then cold fury at the whole buggy-moving mix-up. I stayed sore about that primal scare for way too long. The only good that came from the incident? I learned how it feels at the moment a child goes missing. I learned what parents and caretakers experience in that unbearable instant.

Adela? The kindness of strangers became a very real thing the night Ana Maria disappeared. She found her stray daughter tugging at the sleeve of a kindly, very surprised gentleman, a man baffled by what to do with an unquestionably special child that, from nowhere, wandered out the door of a restaurant and into his life.

Adela and I were both very lucky. Blessed. The same happy ending doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, a child here one moment, alive and sweet and beautiful and full of promise, disappears the next. And sometimes—the saddest of events—that child is lost and gone forever.

It just happened in Bogotá. On June 17, a peaceful Saturday afternoon the day before Father’s Day, a 23-year-old woman left her mother’s side in upscale Centro Andino mall. The young lady entered a restroom on the mall’s second floor.

Julie Huynh’s mother never saw her alive again. At 10 minutes after 5 p.m., a powerful bomb destroyed the restroom. The blast killed the young French girl on the spot. Two other women died later as doctors at Clínica del Country desperately worked to save them. The explosion hospitalized nine more female victims, one injured critically.

Adela and I had shopped in Centro Andino only a few days before. It seemed impregnable to terror. Even for security-conscious Colombia, mall surveillance appeared over-the-top. Cars entering Andino parking decks stopped to let armed security guards, called vigilantes here, and bomb-sniffing German Shepherds nose around their open trunks.

All that tight security didn’t matter the day the bomb went off. The president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, winner of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, made a personal visit to Andino mall. He deplored the bombing as “a vile, cruel and cowardly act.” He assured Colombians that perpetrators would quickly be brought to justice.

Exactly a week later, Colombian authorities arrested eight suspects in 10 raids in the capital city and in the department (state) of Tolima.

Analyzing data from 250 surveillance cameras plus eyewitness reports from the mall and surrounding Zona Rosa, the popular entertainment district surrounding the mall, police fingered members of the People’s Revolutionary Movement (Movimento Revolutionario del Pueblo), or MRP. The urban militia had previously only been known to explode bombs to scatter pamphlets.

The MRP is not known to be associated with two guerrilla factions, FARC and ELN, that waged a bloody civil war in Colombia for more than 50 years. Whatever else, the arrests of four men and four women won’t bring Julie Hunyh back to her mother’s side. The young French girl had volunteered to teach for six months at a poor school in one of Bogotá’s many barrios. Julie Hunyh, through a French-supported charity, had been training Colombians displaced by terrors of the long civil war in skills needed to rebuild their communities and lives.

I do not mean to trivialize this tragedy by comparing it to the shock of a momentarily missing child in a supermarket. I found my daughter. But I remain haunted by what might have been that day. The unhappy ending. Julie Huynh’s mother had traveled to Bogotá to escort her daughter back to France—to bring her little girl home.

Instead, the seat beside Mrs. Hunyh on the long, sad flight back to Paris was empty.

Charles McNair is Paste’s Books editor emeritus. He served the magazine as writer, critic and editor from 2005-2015.

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