It was a godsend, the 12-page letter that Ingrid Betancourt sent her mother. It confirmed that the best-known hostage in Colombia, one of hundreds, was alive, deep in a guerrilla encampment.
But the letter rang with such profound pain and despair that Betancourt's mother, Yolanda Pulecio, has still not stopped crying. In meticulous prose, Betancourt told her mother that she was "tired, tired of suffering" and that she sometimes thinks death would be a "sweet option."
"These almost six years of captivity have shown me that I'm not as resistant, nor as brave, nor as intelligent, nor as strong as I had thought," Betancourt, a prominent French-Colombian politician, wrote. "I have fought many battles, I have tried to escape on several opportunities, I have tried to maintain hope, as one does keeping head above water. But mamita, I have been defeated."
In the past year, Colombia has been awed by several dramatic stories involving hostages, including that of a policeman who hiked 17 days through the jungle to escape guerrillas and that of a boy born to a hostage mother. But the letter from Betancourt has resonated inside this hardened country, and beyond it, like nothing else. It has generated Christmas vigils, energized international diplomacy and prompted planning inside and outside government to win the hostages' freedom.
In the process, the letter has cast a spotlight on the plight of the captives.
"Ingrid's letter has awakened the conscience of the entire world," said Pulecio, who has stepped up frenetic efforts to free her daughter since the missive's release.
'Proofs of life' package seized
The Colombian army seized the letter on Nov. 29 from three rebel emissaries who were transporting the correspondence and video footage of several hostages through Bogota, the capital. The letters and videos were part of a proof-of-life package long sought by the families of captives, including relatives of three Americans held since 2003: Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell.
In Washington, the issue of the hostages has drawn the concern of members of Congress, with some saying they might participate as observers in talks between the rebels and the Colombian government.
"The proofs of life have caused an unprecedented spike in interest about the hostages' situation here in Washington," said Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington. "That level of interest is still not huge, but it is higher than it has ever been."
Although the number of kidnappings has dropped under President Álvaro Uribe's government, wealthy Colombians still fear being abducted; the writer Gabriel García Márquez, for instance, long ago left the country out of concern for his safety. Uribe says the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, continues to hold more than 750 hostages -- bargaining chips to be used to win the release of imprisoned guerrillas.
The FARC, a Marxist group that has been fighting the state for 43 years, is able to hide captives by taking advantage of a vast, largely uninhabited countryside, much of it almost impenetrable jungle. The group's hostages include local politicians, soldiers and policemen captured in combat, as well as the three Americans -- Defense Department contractors who according to the Bush administration have been held longer than Americans anywhere else in the world.
Madame Colombia and the Warrior of the Andes
Then there's Betancourt, who will turn 46 on Christmas day. She is a Colombian who also holds French citizenship and who served as a senator here and ran for president. Colombians remember her as a youthful and effervescent crusader against malfeasance and drug trafficking in the country's establishment.
That campaign irritated the powerful here and earned her enmity among the corrupt. But she became a star in France. Her book, "The Rage in My Heart," was a bestseller there, and the French media dubbed her Madame Colombia and the Warrior of the Andes.
Pulecio, herself a former Colombian senator known for her work with street children, says her daughter's letter reflects both passion and intellect.
"The beautiful thing about it is, in its literary side, it's divinely written," Pulecio said, sitting in the living room of her Bogota apartment. "There's nothing etched out. It's continuous, continuous, continuous, what she wrote. That shows her head is completely clear, despite the loneliness, the pain, all that she's lived."
Pulecio said the letter had answered many questions and concerns, directly or in messages transmitted between the lines.
Betancourt, who was kidnapped in February 2002 as she campaigned for president in southern Colombia, spoke of the deprivations in the jungle, where she has nothing to read but a Bible; how forced marches are a "Calvary"; and how living in tight quarters with male prisoners who have been held for as long as 10 years "is a problem."
"Before, I used to enjoy bathing in the river," she wrote. "Since I am the only woman in the group, I go practically clothed, with shorts, brassiere, T-shirt, boots, no matter if I look like a grandmother."
Betancourt is most affectionate when writing of her children, Lorenzo Delloye, 19, and Melanie Delloye, 22, college students raised in France, where their father is a diplomat. But the passages about her children are also bittersweet, as she recalls all she has lost.
"They are the same, and they are others," she wrote her mother. "And each second of my absence, of not being able to be there for them, of caring for their pain, of being unable to advise them, give them strength, show patience and humility in the face of life's blows -- all those opportunities lost for a mother poison the moments of infinite loneliness."
Only connection to the outside world
Betancourt tells her mother that the only connection she has with the outside world is through her battered transistor radio. Under the jungle canopy, Betancourt listens to a Bogota radio program that broadcasts messages to the hostages from their relatives.
"Every day I open my eyes at 4 a.m., and I prepare myself to be very awake to hear your message at 5," she wrote. "That's my daily fantasy, to hear your voice, feel your love, your tenderness."
Pulecio has probably become the best-known relative of a hostage. She's met with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and urged him to continue unilateral efforts to free hostages, even after Uribe ended Chávez's mediation role last month. Last week, she traveled to Buenos Aires, invited by the government in Argentina to attend the presidential inauguration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She met with top French officials there and was invited to a meeting of Latin American leaders.
Pulecio has severely criticized the Uribe administration for making proposals that the FARC is unlikely to accept. "There are policemen and officers who have been in the depths of the jungle 10 years," she said. "And the Colombian government doesn't initiate a dialogue so they can be freed."
Pulecio said she has been invigorated by the outpouring of support, from ordinary people who stop her in the street and from governments as far away as Italy. But she feels she has to move fast -- it's clear from Betancourt's letter that time is not on her side.
"I do not have the same strength, it takes too much to continue having faith, but know that what you have done for us has made a difference," Betancourt wrote. "We feel like human beings. Thank you."