Translation – The Lost Children [Part 1]
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Translation by Patrick Moseley
[Joshua Johnson, host 1A]: Where can we debate today’s big issues without getting attacked for speaking online? 1A provides a safe, smart place for tough conversations every week day. And the Friday news roundup breaks down the week’s top stories. I’m Joshua Johnson. Check out the 1A podcast on the NPR One app or wherever you listen to podcasts.
[Martha Lucía López]: It was a…deafening sound. It’s something I’ve never heard again in my life.
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: This is Martha Lucía López.
[Martha Lucía]: Because sometimes it sounded…like a raging river you hear when it’s raining and you’re in the country.
[Daniel]: She is Colombian and a survivor of what in the country is known as “the Armero Tragedy,” when the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted in 1985.
[Martha Lucía]: But sometimes it sounded like when you open a gas can or when a pressure cooker hisses.
[Daniel]: What happened in Armero was one of the worst natural disasters of the 20th century on the entire planet, leaving more than 25 thousand dead and thousands missing.
[Martha Lucía]: Something like…like a…it was between a rattling and a “ssssss,” I don’t know, something… I don’t, I can’t….I can’t describe it.
[Daniel]: It all started with a volcanic eruption—one that wasn’t even that large. The ice covering the snowcapped peak melted and from there millions of liters of water barreled down the Lagunilla river making its way to Armero.
And even though there were 46 kilometers between the volcano and the city, the residents of Armero didn’t have enough time to react.
The deluge reached the city at 11 at night. And in less than an hour, a peaceful prosperous city practically disappeared.
But the story doesn’t end there, of course. In fact, it had barely started.
Here is our producer David Trujillo.
[David Trujillo, producer]: First, you have to understand what Armero was like before the mudslide.
[Martha Lucía]: Everyone who lived there had a very happy life. It was a small city, where in the end, well, everyone knew each other…
[David]: Martha Lucía López, or Chía, as she’s been called her whole life, wasn’t originally from Armero. She moved there in 1979 to do her internship after studying agronomy.
[Martha Lucía]: It was a typical hot soil town, where there were generally one maybe two floors per house.
[David]: Many small houses had front yards. And there was a plaza, the central park…
[Martha Lucía]: Like any other town plaza it had its big trees and church. And around that area were really the places where you could go and meet up with friends and chat and have a drink.
David: At that time, Armero was one of the most important agrarian zones in the country. They called it “the White City” because it was the biggest cotton producer in Colombia. The soil was very fertile, like a lot of places in Tolima, and almost anything could be cultivated. When she graduated, Martha Lucía started working where she had done her internship, at a plant and fruit company.
In 1980 she became pregnant with her boyfriend at the time…
[Martha Lucía]: My son was born at that time.
[David]: She named him Sergio Melendro López. A little later, her relationship with Sergio’s father ended and she met Darío at the company where she worked. She started dating him and then they moved in together. At the time of the mudslide, in 1985, Sergio was 5 years old.
The volcano had been active for a year more or less, and from that moment the media had been releasing reports about what was going on.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: Scientists are taking it upon themselves to get to the bottom of the activity in the volcanic zone surrounding Nevado del Ruiz and outline plans for disaster prevention.
[David]: For all kinds of disaster, not just volcanic eruptions. Because in September 1985, Ingeominas —the State entity that was studying the volcano— released a report explaining that the heat in the crater was causing something else…
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: The progressive melting of Nevado del Ruiz, as a consequence of the high temperatures inside of the mountain, is the primary concern at the moment for seismologists studying the phenomenon. Most of all because water flow from rivers originating from the mountain has increased considerably.
[David]: But like many residents of Armero, Martha Lucía…
[Martha Lucía]: Personally, I had no idea about what could happen…
[David]: Two months before the eruption, in September, some members of congress asked that measures be taken to protect the population. A melt could cause a mudslide and several communities along the Lagunilla river were at risk.
But not everyone agreed.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Expert]: I don’t think that populations neighboring the base of the Nevado del Ruiz should worry to the point that they’re selling their farms or emigrating from the area.
[David]: Several experts minimized these fears.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Expert]: There is no scientific reason for the concern that has surfaced in the population. Stay calm and wait for developments that will come with time in the event that there is danger, because at the moment there is none.
[Expert]: We are also asking for a little calm and clarity. It seems that the danger is not so imminent.
[David]: The Ministry of Mines itself made these concerns appear overly apocalyptic, and said there was no need for any greater precautions than those already in place. And no one did anything.
That 13th of November, Martha Lucía drove a little more than an hour to Ibagué for a few medical tests. There they confirmed what she already suspected: she was 3 months pregnant. She spent the whole day in Ibagué; when she got back to Armero it was about 7pm. She left her car about a block from her house in a parking spot she rented. And she started walking.
[Martha Lucía]: And I felt dirt fly into my eyes and I say “wow, it’s so dusty”, since I had thought it had been a hot summer and there was a lot of dust in the air. That’s what I thought.
[David]: But when she got home and turned on the radio, the local broadcast was saying that from that afternoon on, ash was falling from the volcano.
[Martha Lucía]: The wind was carrying it to Armero and that we should please cover our water tanks. That if the output of ash increased, we should use face masks to protect ourselves. But that was it. We should stay inside, nothing was going to happen…
[David]: And so she wasn’t worried. She carried on with her normal routine.
[Martha Lucía]: Normally we all take a bath before bed. That whole time I was with my son in the bath, chatting…He wanted a brother, and he told me that was what he was going to ask Baby Jesus for Christmas, a brother.
[David]: Martha Lucía still hadn’t totally adjusted to the idea of having another child, so she decided not to tell Sergio.
[Martha Lucía]: Well, he said his prayers, like always, he was sleeping with Pluto, a doll he had, and that night he told me about the thunder and lightning, and asked me why the sky was lighting up and why there were sounds in the night. Sometimes he got scared.
[David]: That night there was a heavy rain. They could hear thunder.
[Martha Lucía]: When I explained it to him, he told…his doll, he was talking to Pepe and he told him: “You see, Pepe? These sounds are nothing. You don’t need to be afraid.” He told his doll the same thing I told him.
[David]: He hugged the doll and fell asleep.
Martha Lucía went to bed, but first she turned on the TV. At the end of the news program they gave the following report:
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: We just received what appears to be a very unfortunate report from Inravisión. We have established communication with the Inravisión station operating at the base of the Nevado del Ruiz, in the department of Caldes, with the Inravisión head here in Bogotá, and all signs seem to indicate that at this moment a new eruption of the del Ruiz volcano is taking place.
[Martha Lucía]: And I remember I prayed for all the people living in Manizales, for God to protect them and for nothing bad to happen to them.
[David]: Manizales is a city on the other side of the volcano, directly 29 miles away. Martha Lucía was worried about the people there because they had always said that Manizales was the city that was in the greatest danger if the volcano did erupt.
After 10pm, Martha Lucía was asleep. All of a sudden, her husband woke her up. He was getting dressed.
[Martha Lucía]: And I said: “Where are you going?”
[David]: Darío told her that he was going to the fire station to ask how he could help if there were a flood.
[Martha Lucía]: And I told him —I was thinking and I told him—: “No, I want to go and hear what they tell you.” And I put something on and left after him.
[David]: When they left the house, she said to Darío…
[Martha Lucía]: “It’s not raining.” What’s falling… Then I realize that it wasn’t raining but sand was falling.
[David]: Not sand. Ash.
So she went into Sergio’s room…
[Martha Lucía]: I thought about taking him, but then I said: “Ah, it’s too much…it was so hard to get him to bed, and besides I’ll be right back,” because I was just going to see what was going on at the firehouse.
[David]: So they left him with Rubiela, someone who helped them at home. Martha Lucía and Darío took the car to the fire station which was very close.
[Martha Lucía]: I think it was 3 blocks away in an “L” shape.
[David]: When they arrived, everything seemed calm. The lights were off, and no one came out to talk to them.
[Martha Lucía]: And so, we said: “Nothing’s happening, let’s go.” My husband turned the car around on that same street, but when we were passing the hospital…that was when the lights went out.
[David]: They were about a block and a half from the house.
[Martha Lucía]: When the lights go out, I say to Darío: “Hurry because Sergio is going to wake up because his ventilator’s going to turn off”.
[David]: They turned and when they started going up the road to their house…
[Martha Lucía]: The mudslide started coming down our street. And Darío tells me: “I can’t drive up in the car because a river is coming down.”
[David]: A ton of black water was descending at full speed. People were leaving their houses, afraid of what was happening. Darío told Maria Lucía to take that car to Mariquita—a town about 30 minutes from there. He told her that he was going to get Sergio and Rubiela to take them in the other car they had and find each other there.
[Martha Lucía]: I was imagining Sergio on the dining room table with Rubiela and it was flooding.
[David]: Darío went running and Martha Lucía stayed behind.
[Martha Lucía]: I was frozen in the car like a statue. I just closed my eyes and think and then I hear the shouts of people telling me: “Move lady, it’s the end of the world!” And everyone was shouting for me to start the car and go, but I didn’t.
[David]: Darío tried to continue making his way to the house on foot. But the water coming down the street didn’t even let him cross the street before dragging him back to the car. Darío got up and decide to try to make it to the house again, but from the other side. Halfway through, the mudslide started to pull them away. So they had to jump out and try to continue on foot.
[Martha Lucía]: We just wanted to get to the house to look for Sergio.
[David]: But when they tried to go up the other street, they saw a large group of people running toward them.
[Martha Lucía]: Darío had to pick me up off the ground several times and I remember that people rushed over me, they stepped on me.
[David]: They got to the corner and there Martha Lucía could feel that she wasn’t able to walk properly…
[Martha Lucía]: At that point it was more like being in a swimming pool. So we climbed a tree.
[David]: Martha Lucía could feel the waves from one side moving them up and down. There was a moment when they realized the tree couldn’t carry their weight anymore, so a few people helped them get onto the roof of a house in front of them. That’s how high the level of the muddy water was at that point.
Other people climbed onto that same roof. It was about 11 at night. There was no light and they could only see flashes, like streaks of lightning but they didn’t know what they were. They didn’t know if they were bolts of lightning or gas pipes exploding or short-circuits.
They heard the people beside them on the roof…
[Martha Lucía]: The crying boy, the crying woman, the shouting man, everyone crying out…
[David]: Martha Lucía and Darío were stuck a block away from their house. The deluge continued and the hopelessness they felt not being able to do anything, not even reach Sergio, was horrible. On top of everything, it started to rain.
[Martha Lucía]: So there was the rain, the ash, the noise, the crying…Well I was vomiting and crying for a while and then it was someone else. It wasn’t…We took turns losing our calm.
[David]: No one slept that night.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
[Matt Holzman, host The Document]: Documentary filmmakers shoot hundreds of hours of material and in The Document we mine great stories from that footage. It’s like if radio and documentaries had a baby…an inspiring and very insightful little baby. Check it out on KCRW.com/thedocument or whereever you get your podcasts.
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[Martha Lucía]: The next day, bear in mind…the sun rises on a town covered by fog, a dark haze. You couldn’t see further than your nose.
[Daniel]: The mudslide had stopped.
[Martha Lucía]: Everything was one gigantic beach. It was a horrible landscape.
[Daniel]: David Trujillo continues the story.
[David]: They were all the same color: grey from the mud. Most of them were naked. The mudslide had torn off their clothes. The town had been leveled. The few buildings that remained were almost entirely buried in a thick mud, like concrete.
[Martha Lucía]: Hearing the cries of people asking for help, people’s cries bursting out of the earth, it was something…no, no, no, it was unbelievable.
[David]: Martha Lucía’s houses, which had been diagonally across from where they were, no longer existed. Then a small plane flew overhead.
The people on the roof signaled it with their arms…but it didn’t stop.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CARACOL RADIO)
[Yamid Amat]: Mr. Rivera flew over Armero in a crop-duster. And what fo you have to tell us, Mr. Rivera?
[David]: It was the first fly-over of Armero after the mudslide. Once he landed, the pilot, Fernando Rivera, spoke with Yamid Amat, a journalist with Caracol Radio.
(SOUNDBITE FROM CARACOL RADIO)
[Fernando Rivera]: Armero was nearly 100% leveled.
[Yamid Amat]: Yes. What time was it when you saw Armero?
[Fernando Rivera]: Uh, it was about 6 in the morning.
[Yamid Amat]: How would you describe what you saw?
[Fernando Rivera]: What was left…was all mud. It wiped away houses, it wiped away everything, just everything.
[Yamid Amat]: But could you talk about the number of the deceased?
[Fernando Rivera]: Well, the best way is to figure out how many people lived in Armero and then take into account that not even 2% of the population survived. Almost all of the rest died.
[David]: That’s obviously a rushed and approximate figure based on the first thing the pilot saw, but what can be understood from this is the scale of the devastation.
In Armero, Martha Lucía and Darío had already spent 12 hours on that roof. While Darío was trying to help people, she was still in shock.
[Martha Lucía]: I was like a frightened animal with a blank mind. So I wasn’t capable of thinking straight, talking, saying anything, but I was…there. Whether I had been hit or not, physical pain didn’t matter to me.
[David]: The rescue workers arrived around noon. They were brigades from the Red Cross, the Civil Defense, the military, the police and volunteers. It was all somewhat improvised.
There had never been that kind of disaster in Colombia and well, the state wasn’t really prepared. The rescue workers weren’t trained to delve into a giant pool of mud and pull out trapped people.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Rescue worker]: We need some inner-tubes because we can get to where the people are but doing the transfer is impossible. So we need a few inner-tubes…
[Rescue worker]: You feel them and you pull them up.
[Rescue worker]: It’s easier.
[David]: They didn’t have the machinery to get through the debris and help the injured.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEW REPORT)
[Journalist]: There is urgent need, if possible, to deploy heavy machinery from Mariquita to remove mud and debris. If the removal is not completed in the next 12 hours the mass of mud, rocks, sand and ash will solidify.
[David]: They were bringing equipment to respond to burns because they thought that it was lava that had hit Armero, but when they encountered more complex injuries—that is, mutilated individuals with multiple fractures or objects lodged in their bodies— there was nothing they could do. Their medical equipment didn’t have the tools to treat the injured.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEW REPORT)
[Journalist]: The doctors at the assistance clinic are few in number due to the high number of the injured and the lack of donations to the hospital.
[Doctor]: We have an extremely urgent need for suturing supplies, bandages, and materials for cleaning and recovery. In particular we needs medication, antibiotics.
[David]: The roof of the hospital turned into an improvised helipad. From there military helicopters evacuated the injured.
It was nearly 3 in the afternoon when they took Darío and Martha Lucía. They transferred them to Lérida, a nearby town where they were placed in camps that were meant to take in those who had been rescued. Martha Lucía didn’t have any serious wounds, just some bruises on her arms and legs. But the psychological impact was enormous.
[Martha Lucía]: They treated our wounds and gave us vaccines and changed us and well…from there they put us on a bus and sent us to Ibagué.
[David]: And on that bus…
[Martha Lucía]: Everyone turned to nothing. No one spoke to anyone. Everyone…one person was hit, the other was scratched, the other was injured, the other… like a zombie. Everyone. It was like transporting livestock.
[David]: Darío’s wounds were also not very serious, so he went back to look for Sergio as soon as he could.
They transferred Martha Lucía to Bogotá. There was a risk that she might miscarry and the hospital at Ibagué wasn’t equipped to help her because of the number of injured people they were taking in. They gave her a sonogram and the doctor told her:
[Martha Lucía]: “They told me I couldn’t talk to you about babies, but your baby is there. It’s barely hanging onto life, but it’s there”.
[David]: They told her she couldn’t leave the clinic until there was no longer any risk of a miscarriage and they ordered total bedrest. Every day there was a chance she’d lose the baby. She was crestfallen, thinking about Sergio all the time.
Meanwhile, Martha Lucía’s family looked all over for Sergio: in hospitals, shelters and nearby towns. They always went with a photo asking if anyone had seen him. They even released a picture of him with his information on a news report. And Martha Lucía asked after him every day from the clinic. But there was no sign of Sergio. And that was true of their nanny, Rubiela, as well.
Martha Lucía’s family started to become convinced that he was most likely dead. But not her.
[Martha Lucía]: Because I always said: “No, I feel that he’s out there somewhere, I can feel that he’s alive.”
[David]: She started to feel that her family was judging her.
[Martha Lucía]: Everyone in my house said something like… “She’s going to lose it.” So it was always like…it was better not to bring up the topic again…And the pain was just mine, for me.
I think I spent a lot of time crying alone.
[David]: Martha Lucía had to go back to work in the area a month after the mudslide. She lived relatively close to Armero and obviously it was very difficult.
[Martha Lucía]: I was spending my days going out and working, and coming across the things from the buried houses, coming across everything around where I was walking when I would go out to work and prepare the land to be planted again.
[David]: There she met up with some co-workers who had also lived through the mudslide. And of course…
[Martha Lucía]: We had an issue in common and we always talked about the same thing. And I think I was one of the ones who talked about it the least, or rather I stayed quiet, or I would get up and leave to avoid hearing…
[David]: When she would drive through the area and had to pass by Armero, she would freeze up.
[Martha Lucía]: It was always like there was a curtain in front of me and I wouldn’t think about what was happening on the other side.
[David]: And something else happened to her…
[Martha Lucía]: And I forgot the names of people and places that for me were very important and were places I would go a lot. But that’s not something that happened recently, it’s not…it wasn’t happening over the course of years, instead it was in that exact moment that Armero happened.
[David]: It was defense mechanism to protect herself from the trauma and allow her to continue with her life.
[Martha Lucía]: Well, in fact, I think that in the first couple years I barely ever talked about it.
It was to put a veil over my eyes, to put up a wall in my heart and say, “I don’t hear anything, I don’t see anything, I don’t know about anything, I…I don’t feel anything.” Perhaps it was the only way not to lose my mind…after losing my son and experiencing so much pain…living near so much pain…
[David]: In May 1948, 6 months after the mudslide, Martha Lucía had her second son, Felipe. Three years later she had a third, Camilo. All that time they lived and worked near Armero. In 1990 they moved with their kids to Bogotá. And for 27 years they didn’t revisit the subject of Sergio.
But Martha Lucía could never be convinced that her son had died.
In 2012, Martha Lucía found out that there was a foundation called Armando Armero that brought people together every year to commemorate the mudslide. That year she felt emboldened to start talking about Sergio again, and at the foundation they suggested that she talk to her family about it and ask them all of the questions she had again. One of the first people she called was her brother Gustavo, who had helped her search for Sergio after the mudslide. In the middle of that conversation, she learned that her brother had gone almost 30 years without telling her something very important.
[Gustavo López]: Hello
[David]: I called Gustavo so he could tell me what happened himself. He told me the same thing he told his sister: in the days following the mudslide, they had gone to many nearby towns with Sergio’s picture. A lot of the people in the shelters were in shock and when he showed it to them…
[Gustavo]: They looked at me with this completely blank expression and they didn’t say if they had seen him or anything.
[David]: In one of those nearby towns, in Venadillo, Gustavo showed Sergio’s picture to a rescue worker with the Red Cross.
[Gustavo]: And this is what he told me, he said: “I saw that boy. I took him because the boy grabbed my attention.”
[David]: Because of his last name. Melendro. He knew someone with that last name.
[Gustavo]: And he told me: “I…I took care of him. I took care of that boy.” And he said: “He had hurt his arm and we halfway treated his wound and sent him off to the Red Cross.”
[David]: When Gustavo went to the Red Cross and asked after Sergio again, no was able to give any information about him.
He keep looking throughout the region: in shelters, hospitals and camps, but it was no use.
For Gustavo, seeing his sister’s state after losing Sergio was very difficult. He saw that she was very depressed.
[Gustavo]: So I never wanted to tell her: “Look, this happened.” I didn’t want to tell her anything about it.
[David]: Martha Lucía cried a lot. A flurry of emotions was blending together inside her. She felt anger and frustration at having lost so many years in silence instead of having looked for her son. But at the same time she felt some hope knowing that Sergio could be alright somewhere.
As soon as she hung up with Gustavo, she called her sister Olga Cecilia. She needed to let everything out. When she told her what their brother had said, she also told her about something that happened a few months after the mudslide. This is Olga Cecilia…
[Olga Cecilia López]: We got a call at home from Family Welfare.
[David]: The Colombian Family Welfare Institute, or the ICBF by its Spanish initials—the agency in charge of protecting children in Colombia.
Olga Cecilia’s contact information had appeared on television in case someone had information about Sergio, so it didn’t seem odd to her.
[Olga Cecilia]: They told us to go to Family Welfare the next day at, say, 9 am. And that the boy, Sergio Melendro López was there. They told us to bring identification, everything to show that we really were the family.
[David]: Olga Cecilia couldn’t believe it. She was really excited to find her nephew, but…
[Olga Cecilia]: We didn’t want to tell her anything because we really wanted it to it be a surprise.
[David]: She went with her husband to the headquarters of the ICBF, in Bogotá. They brought a picture of the boy, their identification and clothes and food for Sergio. But when they got there.
[Olga Cecilia]: No one gave us any information. No one. They told us that no one…that no one from there had called us…
[David]: Olga Cecilia insisted, obviously. She asked how that was possible, she had gotten a call the previous day and they had given his full name. But they told them no…
[Olga Cecilia]: That it was definitely…some kind of mistake because there was no child there that matched that information, that name and that description.
My husband even got upset and…and demanded: “We demand some information: Why did you call!? Why you say this!?” My husband said: “Well, let us go in and see the children to see if we recognize him or he recognizes us.”
[David]: They stayed there at the door for hours and hours. And it was no use.
[Olga Cecilia]: I mean, they were avoiding the situation and finally we left since no one was answering any of our questions.
[David]: They insisted at other ICBF headquarters but it was the same story. Olga Cecilia contacted them again several times but they always said the same thing: it was a mistake, they didn’t make that call. So they decided not to tell Martha Lucía.
[Olga Cecilia]: She was in shock for months. She was really…in a bad place emotionally. Anything would have a terrible effect on her.
[David]: And on top of that she was pregnant and in danger of losing the baby…
[Olga Cecilia]: There were things we really avoided telling her if we weren’t 100% sure, you know?
[David]: But Olga Cecilia, even 27 years later, she still believes that it’s practically impossible that what the ICBF told her —that is was a mistake— is true.
[Olga Cecilia]: Because that call with…I mean, they didn’t just say it was a similar boy, but Sergio Melendro López. Why call me with the boy’s personal information and first and last name? Why?
[David]: Martha Lucía couldn’t believe it.
[Martha Lucía]: When I call my brother and sister, this story comes out and I was left with this feeling like I had been pulled out of Armero yesterday. I felt very bad…
[David]: She felt like she was on a dead end street. She was perplexed. So she called Yolanda, a life-long friend. She needed to let it all out again.
And this is going to sound crazy, but it’s not: Yolanda also had something to tell her: a mutual friend of theirs named Luz Ángela, on a trip to New Orleans, 6 months after the mudslide, went into a Benetton store and when one of the salespeople heard her speak Spanish, he went up to her and asked…
[Martha Lucía]: “Are you Latina?”, and she says: “Yes, I’m from Colombia.” And he said: “It’s so exciting to meet a Latin person because…and from Colombia too, because my brother just adopted a boy from the tragedy and my nephew is from there.” So she takes out her wallet and shows him the picture and tells him: “This is Sergio, my friend Chía’s son.”
[David]: According to Luz Ángela, she tried to ask the salesperson for some explanation, but he got evasive and refused to help her anymore.
When she went back to Colombia, she told some of Martha Lucía’s friends, including Yolanda. This is Yolanda:
[Yolanda Isaza]: Well all of us who were friends with Chía got together. What are we going to do with this information?
[David]: They talked about it among themselves. The biggest problem was that they didn’t have any precise information…
[Yolanda]: Because if the friend comes and tells us: “Look, he’s in this city, here is the phone number, these are the people’s names”, well obviously, we’d say right there: “Let’s go look for him! Now!”
[David]: But without anything concrete they thought…
[Yolanda]: It’s such a difficult time and you can’t bring this up, not for false hopes, not for sensational stories, not for anything because it takes a delicate touch, it takes a lot of care. It’s a very great pain and when you love someone you don’t want to hurt them.
[David]: In other words, they followed the same reasoning as the siblings. Like them, they decided not to tell her anything.
Martha Lucía got in touch with Luz Ángela and she confirmed the story.
[Martha Lucía]: I called her and talked to her. And she offered to help me. She’s a lawyer and she told me: “Whatever you want.”
[David]: When she hung up, Martha Lucía broke down. She wasn’t doing well for several days. What hurt the most was thinking that if she had known then, it would have been easier to look for Sergio. But it had been so many years, the boy’s face wasn’t the same anymore. He was an adult now. Completely different.
In the end, after going back to that hopelessness, she decided not to be angry or hateful or spiteful. It wasn’t worth it to spend any more energy on that. She preferred to hold it in and focus of the idea of finding Sergio someday.
Because when everything was said and done with these revelations Martha Lucía—in a way— was confirming what she had always felt: that Sergio had survived. Now she had other concerns: Where was he? What had he been doing all this time?
But, of course, Sergio wasn’t the only child who disappeared. There were many, many more…
[Francisco González]: And then I started receiving stories and stories…
[David]: This is Francisco González, from the Armando Armero foundation. When he created the organization, at first he ran it like a research project. For the historical memory of Armero. But every time he had a meeting, people would come up to him to tell him…
[Francisco]: “Look you’re going to help me” and they would but a story in my pocket. “Look, take this.” I would go back to the hotel or to Bogotá: “I’m looking for my daughter, help me find her, I don’t know.”
[David]: He received a lot of stories about missing children.
[Francisco]: And I said: “Man, what do I do?” But… “Who is helping these people?”. “No one.” “Who?” So I started…I started to see that the State hadn’t done anything. So I said: “Let’s see: What routes do I have to go down?”
[David]: There are almost 300 cases like Sergio’s. Three hundred children that apparently survived, but never saw their parents again.
And Martha Lucía got in contact with Francisco and his foundation in 2012.
[Daniel]: In our next episode…
[Teresa Sabogal]: I have always accepted the possibility that somebody may have been able to end up with a child.
[Francisco González]: I don’t know, I don’t know what they’re hiding. I don’t know what they’re trying to do here. That is a wound that Colombia bears that still hasn’t healed.
[Felipe Salama]: Hi, my name is Felipe Salama. I’m an Armero survivor. And when I was a boy I became a John Doe. Please contact the Armando Armero Foundation.
[Heidy Dibella]: My name is Heidy Dibella, I was adopted after the Armero tragedy. Now I live in Italy. I’m looking for my relatives.
[Daniel]: What happened to the children who survived Armero?
David Trujillo is a producer with Radio Ambulante and lives in Bogotá. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and me. Mixing and sound design by Ryan Sweikert.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Andrés Azpiri, Jorge Caraballo, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern and Andrea Betanzos is the program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.