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Saturday, 22 December, 2001, 14:00 GMT
The death of hope
Thousands filed past Andres Felipe's coffin
By the BBC's Richard Collings

It's not often you see men, women and children crying openly in the street. It's even more surprising when the reason for their collective grief is a 12-year-old boy who they've never met.

But across Colombia, tens of thousands of people have been mourning the death of Andres Felipe Perez.

Prominent Colombians wrote to the FARC offering themselves as hostage replacements for Norberto

His terminal cancer had been diagnosed almost two years ago, and he was far from unique in suffering from the disease.

But what set little Andres Felipe apart from many other children was the enforced absence throughout most of his illness of his father Norberto.

The boy's last wish had been to embrace his father one more time. He wanted the playful hug that all parents can give their children. But sadly, this reunion never took place.

FARC captive

Norberto, an officer in the Colombian police force, had been kidnapped by a left-wing guerrilla group just as his son's cancer entered a critical phase.

He was denied the opportunity to give his son a vital kidney transplant.

Pleas to the guerrilla leaders to release their hostage fell on deaf ears. Prominent Colombians - and even young children - wrote to the head of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, offering themselves as hostage replacements for Norberto.

But those offers too were rejected.

Andres Felipe Perez with his mother, Francis Ocampo
Andres Felipe became a symbol of the conflict
For months on end Colombian television has broadcast every new twist and turn in this tragic story.

Night after night on the television news there were replays of a heart-wrenching video in which the boy's father was trying his hardest to smile.

The guerrillas had filmed Norberto Perez holding out his arms in the form of a huge embrace for his son. This was the only message his captors allowed to be sent.

According to Andres Felipe's mum, her sonīs last words - just minutes before he died - were: "If my dad calls, please wake me up".

A country in mourning

And so I came to find myself talking to a group of Colombians in a small provincial town in the south of the country, very close to guerrilla-held territory. Everyone had just heard the news that Andres Felipe was dead.

In the past I've witnessed much bloodshed here, but for me that had been part and parcel of the political mess that Colombians had got used to.

I had often remained emotionless, always the impartial observer. This time, though, it was different.

Andres lay in an open coffin while thousands filed by to pay their last respects

I found it very difficult to hold back my own tears while the images of the now dead boy making his final pleas to see his father were being replayed over and over again on television.

We all knew he had died but the video images taken just hours before seemed to defy belief. How could he have died without his last wish being granted?

Symbol of the conflict

What followed over the next few days was a funeral ceremony which, in many countries, is reserved for royalty and former presidents.

Andres Felipe Perez lay in an open coffin while thousands filed by to pay their last respects.

There's been much talk about what this episode has done, if anything, for Colombia's long drawn-out peace process.

Many say that Andres Felipe was a beacon of hope for them. Others blame politicians and guerrillas alike for the intense emotional suffering he was forced to endure on top of his debilitating illness.

Maybe he was also a symbol of the cruelty of Colombia's armed conflict.

Peace counsellor Mireya Mejia, freed by the FARC
Mireya Mejia was also held captive by the FARC
Certainly Colombia's beleaguered president has won few friends for his actions. Andres Pastrana was elected with an overwhelming majority three years ago - because, he claimed, he could negotiate directly with the rebel forces.

In the early days he met openly with them and travelled to towns they had captured. But now he's generally considered to have lost his influence.

Certainly, the feeling in most of the country is that if Mr Pastrana could not secure the simple last wish of one of his youngest citizens, he cannot hope to advance the cause of peace here any further.

The BBC's Freya Michie
"His father was captured two years ago"
See also:

19 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia mourns tragic cancer boy
03 Dec 01 | Americas
Dying boy touches Colombian hearts
23 Nov 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Colombia
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