updated 7/3/2008 7:08:21 PM ET 2008-07-03T23:08:21

A meal was rice and beans. Bed was the ground under a patched plastic tarp. They bathed in rivers, and when they weren't chained by the neck to trees, they were forced on long marches to new hideouts under the jungle canopy.

Hostages freed in a daring helicopter rescue said Thursday their grueling existence as captives of Colombian rebels worsened in recent months as government troops closed in and supplies became more scarce.

"In the last year, it was tougher to get food. There was little variety, no fruit, no vegetables," said Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate who spent six years in captivity.

Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers and police officers were freed Wednesday in a daring rescue from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In their first hours of freedom, they offered tidbits of information about their grueling lives in the jungle.

Daily ritual
The hostages would wake about 5:30 a.m., kidnapped soldier William Perez said Thursday, speaking to the Associated Press from the military hospital where he was being treated.

They would eat a breakfast of coffee and corn cakes, listen to the radio and exercise for an hour.

Lunch was rice, pasta and lentils. About once a month, they would get a little bit of meat or vegetables. The only fruit was what they could pick — wild fruit whose names he didn't even know. He said he craved papaya most of all.

They would be in bed by 6 p.m.

"Nothing more," said Perez, who spent a decade in captivity. "The only thing was the radio. They gave us batteries."

Clothing, especially underwear, was scarce, Betancourt said. Meals came from an old pot — "shiny from so much use" — that didn't even have a top. They slept in improvised tents of plastic tarp.

"We had to patch up our boots because there was no way to get new ones," Betancourt said.

Pair of jeans
The only new clothes she had seen in some time were a pair of blue jeans, given to her Wednesday hours before her rescue.

Hostages made references to the cruelty of their captors, but offered few details.

"It was not treatment that you can give to a living being, I won't even speak of a human being," Betancourt told France 2 television on Thursday. "I wouldn't have given the treatment I had to an animal, perhaps not even to a plant. ... There was only arbitrary cruelty."

But often the greatest challenge was boredom, Perez said, interrupted only by periodic marches from camp to camp.

His worst memories were being chained by the neck to a post and forced to march without boots.

Hostages lived with injuries sustained during capture and jungle diseases they had no way of treating.

Parasites and illnesses
Two of the Americans were infected with the jungle parasite leishmaniasis, which causes often painful sores on the skin, with raised red edges and a central crater.

Thomas Howes, of Chatham, Mass., suffered from severe headaches after hitting his head in the crash-landing that led to his capture, according to Luis Eladio Perez, a former hostage freed in February, who spent months chained by the neck to the same post as Howes.

All three Americans were described Thursday as being in very good physical condition and high spirits by a U.S. Army team leading their readjustment to everyday life.

Medical treatment was scarce, although Betancourt, a dual Colombian-French citizen, said she was able to get some care because the rebels knew "France was behind" her so they had to keep her alive.

William Perez, who studied nursing in the military, said his background helped him treat ailing hostages, including Betancourt, whom he fed with a spoon at one point.

He gave serums to those suffering from fevers that were likely caused by hepatitis, but mostly had to make do with aspirin.

Betancourt told France 2 that she fell ill with "a series of problems that piled on top of each other. I couldn't nourish myself, I lost weight as you saw, I lost the capacity to move, I was prostrated in my hammock, I had trouble drinking."

She credited Perez with saving her life.

Overall, the hostages said, their lives were miserable.

"Life here is not a life," Betancourt wrote to her mother last year. "It is a complete waste of time."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments