Few people understand uncertainty like Ingrid Betancourt.
One day, during her campaign to become President of Colombia, the Europe-educated intellectual’s life took an unexpected turn: a group of guerrillas marched her into the jungle with a rifle in her back. For six and a half years Betancourt waited for an unknown fate. Would she be assassinated? Would she die from a strange Amazonian disease or insect?
Could she escape?
“At the beginning, it was just like riding in the car with people you don’t know,” recalled Betancourt in a phone interview with Discovery News after publication of her book “Even Silence has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle.”
“But as the days were passing, I could see how I was affected in freedom in the most basic things: not being allowed to go to the toilet, or having to ask permission to go and eat or bathe. This is something you realize slowly.”
Feb. 23, 2002
Betancourt was eager to campaign in the hotly contested demilitarized zone in Colombia’s San Vicente region that February. Months earlier, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government had met there for peace talks. Most candidates avoided the area after those talks failed, but Betancourt had already met with some guerrillas and felt relatively comfortable making the trip by car, after the Colombian military refused to fly her in.
When guerrillas spotted her campaign placard-covered vehicle, they grabbed her.
“The plan was to exchange us for guerrillas caught in jail,” she said. “We were a bargain chip for them, and they gave one year to the government to do the exchange and if not, they were going to kill us.”
As the months dragged on without negotiation, Betancourt looked for every chance to escape. But sneaking out of a guerrilla barracks proved to be trickier than she imagined. Several times she almost got away. Each time she was captured and punished. Sometimes she was held in a cage or forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. Other times she sat for days with chains around her neck. Many times her captors would simply take away small pleasures, like learning to weave belts or bathing in the river.
“If I was interested in learning something, I would just pretend not be because then they would just prevent me … If they saw that I was happy speaking to a companion, immediately they would forbid me from speaking to him,” she explained. “It came to a point where I just shut myself down completely.”
Conditions of captivity didn’t bring out the best in anyone. Betancourt says she and her fellow prisoners had just two changes of clothes -- wet ones that would remain soggy during the continuous torrential downpours, and dry ones for sleeping that had to be meticulously packed in plastic bags.
Constant marching from one camp to another wore down their rubber boots, letting in more rain. There were no repellants or medicines to protect them from the hoards of biting insects or armies of ants, or the poisonous snakes and plants.
Toothbrushes came once a year. Finding a mirror was nearly impossible and shocking when one did appear. But worse for Betancourt than seeing how emaciated she had become was noticing personality traits of herself and others that weren’t very desirable.
“When you lose your freedom, you are alone with your emotions and reactions … you can see, for example, the bad reactions you have in front of others or the way you could be dismissive or harsh,” Betancourt reflected.
Betancourt says her high-profile status as a Colombian politician and a French national was both a help and a hindrance. While it put the spotlight on the Colombian hostage crisis, it also created uncomfortable group dynamics within the group of captives.
Upon their release in 2008, some fellow hostages said in interviews that Betancourt had been selfish and demanding toward everything from housing to food.
“It was tough to hear, but at the same time, I could understand that I was a target because I was the one having some kind of media exposure,” she explained, adding that she still sees those hostages as her family.
“There (were) thousands of days lived together,” Betancourt said.
Betancourt says it would be easy to hate the people who held her for so long, but she learned to find the humanity in just about everyone.
“I remember when they were treating me very cruelly and I thought ‘I’ve lost everything, my freedom, my dreams, my life, my children, my mother, everything, and now they’re turning me into an animal,” she said. “Then I thought, ‘Well that’s the freedom I have, the freedom just to decide what kind of person I want to be.’”
What came out of that notion was compassion for some of her captors, many of them young Colombian peasants who joined the guerrillas out of economic desperation or a need for protection in a violent land.
“It was for some of them going against their own nature to keep us in captivity and treat us like the commander would tell them to treat us,” she said. “I also had the sensation many times that they were as hostage as we were and perhaps worse because I would tell them, ‘well one day I will be free. One day I will go back to my life, but what about you?’ And they would tell me, ‘Well, I could never go back to my family or to my life because they will kill me. I’ll die here.”
Freedom at Last
On July 2, 2008, freedom came to Betancourt in a most unexpected way. A helicopter landed that was to transfer Betancourt and 14 others to another camp.
Weary from so many marches and transfers, they resisted, but it was futile. They were handcuffed and loaded onto the aircraft for yet another unknown destination. But as soon as it took flight, two of their new commanders detained the ones who had made the transfer and suddenly the chief of this new supposed FARC team shouted “We are the Colombian Army! You are free!”
“I remember the emotion we had, I mean, it was euphoric. The whole helicopter was bouncing in the air because we were jumping,” she recalled.
A short while later Betancourt and her companions found themselves on a tarmac embracing their loved ones.
“Those six years of abduction were very heavy in our souls and even today when I’m filled with joy, plentitude, satisfaction and gratitude for freedom and for being alive, I have had the sensation that that incredible joy I feel is not comparable or doesn’t balance the years of darkness I had,” she said.
© 2012 Discovery Channel