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Residents of Medellin Describe Rescue as 'Incredible, Absolutely Incredible'

By Travis Fox
Washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008 9:17 PM

MEDELLIN, Colombia, July 2 -- The Laurels Billiard Club sits on a shady side street in downtown Medellin. On Wednesday afternoon, the smoky bar was full of mostly retired men sitting around tables watching television. A blue neon light illuminated the bar.

"This is incredible, absolutely incredible," said Francisco Jaramillo, 63, who sat alone at a table in the middle of the room. "I never imagined we'd see this day."

Jaramillo's were the only words spoken. Empty glasses sat on almost every table, and all eyes were focused on a flat-screen TV mounted high on the wall..

At another table, Amado Restrepo, 54, sat with a friend. Restrepo worked as a caterer for the movie business in New York before returning to his native Medellin to retire. His daughter still lives in Atlanta. He said that the rescue of the three American hostages, in particular, was timely.

"Colombia gives to America the best present because July Fourth is Independence [Day for] America." Restrepo said in heavily accented English. "The American people, they are very happy -- Mr. Bush, all the people."

Above the bar are the offices of the Mothers of the Candelaria, a support group for families of people who have gone missing in Colombia's long-running civil war. Candelaria refers to the church in Medellin where the group holds weekly vigils. The walls are covered with mug shots of hundreds of people who have been kidnapped or killed and their bodies never recovered. In Colombia, there are still 10,000 missing people.

Volunteers Ana Zapata and Luis Alfonso Quiros stood in the office watching live coverage of the news on TV. When Colombian President Álvaro Uribe appeared, the sound of cheering overwhelmed the announcer's voice. Zapata, 43, gasped and covered her mouth with both hands. When she removed her hands, she was smiling. An image of Ingrid Betancourt appeared on the screen.

"To think, they can hug their families again," she said. Zapata's brother and cousin have been missing for 4 1/2 years.

Like Zapata, Quiros, 76, knows how difficult it is for the families of the missing. His son, Cristian Camilo Quiros, disappeared 10 years ago. Unlike the families of the hostages released by the FARC, Quiros hasn't been told that his son is alive. But he hasn't given up hope.

"I have more hope today with the news of the release of the kidnapped people," he said.

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