With the rescue of the last survivors of the recent volcanic eruption in Colombia, attention has shifted from the dead to the living, particularly the youngest victims of the disaster. In the three days following the volcanic landslides, thousands of survivors, most of them injured, were rescued by helicopter or made their way by foot to nearby towns. But in the haste of the evacuation, many children were separated from their families.
In many cases, an injured parent was airlifted to a hospital in one part of the country while the child was placed in another, less-crowded helicopter to be sent to a relief center in a different city. Other children appear to have lost all their relatives.
Typical of the latter was a four-year-old boy, whose seemingly lifeless body was spotted by a helicopter crew flying over the lake of mud that destroyed the town of Armero. At the sound of the approaching aircraft, the child raised his arm, and within minutes a rescue volunteer, dangling from a rope attached to the helicopter, pulled the sobbing child to safety. It is not known if the boy's parents are alive.
Nearly 2,000 such children are receiving medical treatment, food, and sympathy at 18 children's homes maintained by the government welfare agency. All are suffering from the emotional trauma of the disaster, some to the extent that they cannot speak without bursting into tears. Most of the toddlers do not know their last names. The youngest person rescued is 18 months old.
Although hundreds of Colombian families have called the welfare agency to adopt these children, the agency has postponed any decision in the hope that surviving relatives can be located.
Radio, television, and newspapers are aiding the search by publishing photos of the children and their parents. When the child is able to give information, the names of parents and their presumed location are published.
The effort has paid off in more than a thousand cases. One father, for example, who was separated from his young son during the rescue operation, saw his child for a brief instant on television footage of the disaster. He was able to track down the boy's whereabouts with the help of the news program ``TV Hoy'' (``TV Today''), which had shown the film.
Hundreds of parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have besieged the government welfare agency to locate a lost child, many without success.
When a relative does find a missing child, the results can be painful.
``Where is my mama?'' cried one little girl when greeted by an unknown aunt.
In the disaster zone, hundreds of desperate relatives make the rounds of the relief centers seeking their loved ones among the injured.
Although lists of survivors have been published at the centers and throughout the country, they are incomplete.
Many of the 24,600 dead lie beneath a blanket of mud that the authorities say is impossible to remove because of its enormous extension, medical warnings of the growing danger of disease, and the destruction of the infrastructure in the mountainous zone.
Nevertheless, the survivors refuse to give up hope. Some have returned to the mud lake determined to locate their relatives despite the danger of a second avalanche.
``Please,'' begged one father, ``don't let them adopt the children until it is certain the families are dead.''
The government welfare agency agrees that nothing should be done until each child's situation is clarified.
To that end, the agency is organizing Operation Family Encounter, which will send 130 social workers, sociologists, psychologists, and doctors into the disaster area to help reunite lost families. The three-week project will depend heavily on the news media to publicize the names of the survivors.
Now that the first phase of the rescue operation is over, said welfare agency director Jaime Ben'itez, ``the principal problem is locating missing relatives.''