Tears, then giggles: Honduran baby is back in parents’ arms

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Adalicia Montecino holds her year-old son Johan Bueso Montecinos, who became a poster child for the US policy of separating immigrants and their children, as Johan touches his father Rolando Bueso Castillo's face, in San Pedro de Sula, Honduras, Friday, 20, 2018. (AP)
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Adalicia Montecino kisses her year-old son Johan Bueso Montecinos, who became a poster child for the U.S. policy of separating immigrants and their children, as Johan touches his father Rolando Bueso Castillo's face, in San Pedro de Sula, Honduras, Friday, 20, 2018. (AP)
Updated 21 July 2018

Tears, then giggles: Honduran baby is back in parents’ arms

  • The smuggler drove them into a warehouse in the port city and told them to board a tractor trailer filled with scores of other parents and children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru
  • Rolando spent 22 days locked up in various detention centers along the Texas border

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras: For months, a Honduran couple watched their only son grow up in videos while he was kept in US government custody. That’s where he took his first steps and spoke his first words.
The parents got to embrace the 15-month-old boy again Friday, five months after US immigration officials forcibly separated the baby from his father at the Texas border.
Johan, who grabbed the world’s attention when he appeared in a US courtroom in diapers, at first didn’t recognize his mom and dad after he was flown to San Pedro Sula.
“I kept saying Johan, Johan, and he started to cry,” said his mother, Adalicia Montecinos.
She broke down in tears as she talked about how her son had become a poster child for outrage over the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
“He suffered everything that we have been suffering,” she said.
His father soon won him over by playing ball. Within an hour, the tiny boy in an orange tank top, blue shorts but no shoes laughed as both parents kissed him outside a center where they finished final legal paperwork before heading home.
“I feel so happy,” Adalicia said.
And so ended the extraordinary journey of a baby whose short life has ranged from Honduran poverty to a desperate dash across the US border to the front pages of the world’s newspapers.
Captured by Border Patrol agents almost instantly upon arrival, Johan’s father was deported — and the 10-month-old remained at an Arizona shelter, in the custody of the US government. Over the next five months, he spoke and walked for the first time and had his first birthday; his parents, hundreds of miles away, would miss it all.
When his mother and father last saw him, he had two tiny teeth. Now he has a mouthful.
In early July, Johan went before an immigration judge. An Associated Press account of that court appearance — of the judge’s befuddlement over how to deal with this tiny detainee in diapers, sucking on a bottle — set off an international furor.
“I never thought they could be so cruel,” said his father, Rolando Antonio Bueso Castillo, 37.
Rolando said he thought his plan was a beautiful one. He would escape his hard life in the tiny town of Libertad — Freedom, in Spanish. His children would not grow up in the same poverty that he had endured — he had dropped out of the fourth grade to sell burritos to help his single mom support him and his four siblings.
His younger brother left the coffee-growing mountains of central Honduras for the United States seven years ago and thrived in Maryland with his wife and children. His sister followed, and also did well. Their eldest brother was killed in a drive-by shooting in San Pedro Sula, one of Latin America’s most dangerous cities.
Rolando was left behind with his wife, Adalicia Montecinos, and his 35-year-old disabled sister in their pink, two-bedroom cement home with a corrugated metal roof. He earned $10 a day driving a bus; his brother in America sent back hundreds of dollars to help out.
Rolando, an easy-going and hard-working man, was well aware of the dangers of crossing Mexico. Scores of Central Americans have fallen to their deaths jumping on trains or been shaken down by Mexican police, murdered, kidnapped, robbed or raped on their way to the United States.
He paid a smuggler $6,000, money his brother sent to him. Everything was supposed to be included — hotel stays, three meals daily and transport in an SUV with two other mothers and three children to the US border. He packed five onesies, three jackets, a blue-and-white baby blanket, lotion, cream, 50 diapers, two bottles and cans of formula.
His wife, in her first trimester of pregnancy, would stay behind, working at her market stand selling Nike baseball hats, “California Dreaming” T-shirts and jewelry. In Maryland, their family would help mind Johan while Rolando worked. Adalicia would join them in a few months.
The father and son made it as far as Tampico, Mexico, 500 kilometers (300 miles) from the Texas border, when their beautiful plan started to unravel.
The smuggler drove them into a warehouse in the port city and told them to board a tractor trailer filled with scores of other parents and children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru.
Rolando and his son would spend three days locked in the trailer, shivering from the cold breeze from a buzzing machine they were told provided air for them to breathe. Buckets served as bathrooms.
As other children cried, Rolando’s son sat next to him quietly, Rolando recalled. They huddled together in the dark; he changed Johan’s diapers by the glow of a flashlight.
“We were carried like meat, but we had no choice by then. We had to do what we were told,” Rolando said.
In the Mexican border city of Reynosa, they boarded a makeshift raft and floated across the Rio Grande. They trudged through the Texas brush. They had made it.
But minutes later, a Border Patrol agent spotted them. “Where are you going?” the agent asked.
Rolando said his response was simple, and sincere: “We’re going to search for the American dream.”
The agent told him he was taking them to a detention center. Still, Rolando did not doubt his beautiful plan. He figured once he was processed he would be released with his son to fight his case in the courts. At worst, the two would be deported together back to Honduras.
Inside a cell cordoned off by a chain-link fence, they slept on a mattress under a thin, reflective blanket issued to them.
Rolando said he had to ask for three days before being allowed to bathe Johan.
“He was covered with dirt,” Rolando said.
On the fifth day, immigration officers told Rolando they needed to take him to an office for questioning. One agent removed Johan from his arms. As they walked away, Johan turned, reaching for his dad.
It would be the last time they would see each other for five months.
The agents told Rolando he was going to be separated from the boy and deported to Honduras because this was the fourth time he had attempted to enter the United States. Each time, he was caught almost immediately.
“That’s criminal,” one of the agents told Rolando.
“A criminal is someone who kills, robs, does things to harm people,” Rolando said later. “I just want to work and give my children opportunities.”
Rolando spent 22 days locked up in various detention centers along the Texas border. He knew nothing of his son.
He had no money to call his wife and tell her what had happened. Instead a social worker from the Arizona shelter holding Johan contacted her and asked if she was Johan’s mother. She told her to send his birth certificate and other documents to prove it.
Adalicia could not believe it was true, and waited to hear from her husband. Five days later, another detainee lent him money so he could call her.
“Baby, it’s me,” he said.
“What happened to our son?” she asked, crying.
Rolando broke down. “I don’t know what happened,” he said. “They took him from me. But it’ll be OK.”
“How?” she cried. “When am I going to see my boy again?“
She felt so alone. She would wake up reaching for her baby and remember again what had happened. She watched videos of Johan over and over of him kicking and wiggling, laughing with his dad, staring into the camera.
When Rolando arrived in Honduras in April, he was shocked to see how thin she was — she said she lost 20 pounds and her doctor worried she could lose her baby. The first thing she said when she saw Rolando was “Where’s my boy?“
Rolando said he had first been told by immigration authorities that the two would be deported together, so he agreed to go. Then, they told him his son would follow in two weeks. But months passed.
Rolando called lawyers, the Honduran consulate and US authorities to find out when his son was coming home.
The social worker in the United States started sending weekly videos and making video calls. At first Johan would reach for his mom, as if wanting to embrace her through the screen. But as time passed, he grew distracted.
He is forgetting me, Adalicia thought.
The boy’s parents learned he took his first steps from the social worker, who also sent a video of him on his first birthday, waking up and crying. From the AP’s news story on Johan’s appearance before a judge, they learned that he had started to talk.
“I will never see my son walk for the first time, or celebrate his first birthday,” Adalicia said, her voice shaking. “That’s what I lost — those memories every mom cherishes and tells their children years later.”
At the hearing, Johan repeatedly asked for “agua” — water. At one point, he kicked off his shoes and stood in his socks.
Judge John W. Richardson could hardly contain his unease at having to ask the boy’s lawyer whether his client understood the proceedings.
“I’m embarrassed to ask it, because I don’t know who you would explain it to, unless you think that a 1-year-old could learn immigration law,” he told the lawyer.
In the end, Johan was granted a voluntary departure order that would allow the government to fly him to Honduras — back to the pink house with seven chickens pecking in the dirt outside, with the outdoor wood stove and the cement sink filled with water used to flush the toilet.
The father who awaited him Friday was overwhelmed by guilt over the dismal failure of his beautiful plan. Someday, he knows, his son will ask what happened, and why he had left him in the United States.
“I’ll tell him the truth,” he said. “We thought we had a good plan to give him a better life.”
Will Rolando concoct yet another plan to reach America? He says only that he is a fighter and will work hard to survive, as he always has.
But he knows that his life and that of his family will never be the same.
“They broke something in me over there,” Rolando said. “This was never my son’s fault. Why did he have to be punished?“

Khalilzad announces ‘pause’ in Taliban talks after deadly attack on US-run airfield

Updated 17 min 1 sec ago

Khalilzad announces ‘pause’ in Taliban talks after deadly attack on US-run airfield

  • Peace talks had got underway again following Trump’s surprise visit to the Bagram base two weeks ago

KABUL: The US special envoy to Afghanistan on Friday announced a “pause” in peace talks with the Taliban after the militant group launched an intense hours-long attack on a key US military airfield north of Kabul.

Zalmay Khalilzad said he was “outraged” about the raid on the Bagram base which came just a week after he had resumed negotiations with Taliban representatives in Qatar.

In a tweet Khalilzad added: “(The Taliban) must show they are willing and able to respond to Afghan desire for peace. We are taking a brief pause for them to consult their leadership on this essential topic.”

Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman who is based at the group’s political headquarters in Qatar, tweeted that both sides had decided to have a few days’ break “for consultation.”

Peace talks had got underway again following American President Donald Trump’s surprise visit to the Bagram base two weeks ago, during which he announced the restart of dialogue aimed at ending the long-running Afghan conflict.

Trump had called off negotiations in September after a Taliban attack in Kabul killed an American serviceman.

In line with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, the American leader had said a cease-fire was a must for relaunching peace discussions, while some US diplomats, including Khalilzad, viewed a reduction of violence as essential for the process to continue.

Following the latest pause in talks, Ghani’s chief spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, told Arab News: “Our position has been very clear. The Taliban must cease violence.”

However, there had been no pledge from the Taliban side or Afghan and US-led troops to halt attacks, neither when the talks were held in the past, nor during the latest discussions.

Wednesday’s pre-dawn attack on Bagram lasted more than 10 hours and forced the US military to use a fighter jet and helicopter gunships against the Taliban insurgents.

At least two Afghan civilians were killed, and more than 80 others injured, including five Georgian soldiers, during the fighting.

Khalilzad and US diplomats had held at least 10 rounds of secret talks with the Taliban prior to Trump’s September intervention to halt them. In his tweet, Shaheen said the latest meeting had been “very good and friendly.”

Analyst Akbar Polad said the pause following the Bagram assault was a blow to the peace process and “means a continuation of fighting and more pressure on the Taliban in the future. Either the Taliban do not know or are given false advice for launching attacks like (the one on) Bagram and claiming responsibility,” he told Arab News.

“The Taliban are given the illusion that they are the victors of the war, (that) they will replace the current government. When they conduct attacks, they will further face isolation in society as Afghans suffer the most, and because the Taliban refuse to talk with the government,” Polad added.

The resumption of talks last week, in the middle of a deepening political crisis over September’s presidential vote in Afghanistan, raised hopes of a possible breakthrough in the latest chapter of the war, which began with the Taliban’s ouster in a US-led campaign in late 2001.

A few weeks earlier, the Taliban and the US exchanged prisoners – an American and Australian – both professors at the American University of Afghanistan – for three militants jailed by the Afghan government.

The government has not taken part in the talks because of objections by the Taliban.

Ghani has been pushing for a truce before any discussions – either between the Taliban and the Americans, or between the Taliban and the government – take place.

The Taliban insisted they would only announce a truce after the US had agreed on a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan.

According to the Afghan government, however, the militant group’s political leaders based in Qatar do not have much clout over Taliban military commanders in the field.