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Ex-Colombian hostage tells of life in chains

Many of the hostages held by Colombian rebels are kept chained in jungle camps surrounded by barbed wire, under constant terror that they'll be killed in a government attack, a freed captive said Friday.
Image: Consuelo Gonzalez, Clara de Rojas
Freed hostage Consuelo Gonzalez hugs Clara Gonzalez de Rojas, the mother of a second released hostage, on Thursday.Gregorio Marrero / AP
/ Source: Reuters

Many of the hostages held by Colombian rebels are kept chained in jungle camps surrounded by barbed wire and are terrified by encroaching army artillery and machine gun fire, a freed captive said on Friday.

Former lawmaker Consuelo Gonzalez, released on Thursday after spending six years in the camps, said she was constantly afraid she would be killed by bombs or bullets from Colombian air force helicopters.

Some hostages are kept in shackles around the clock and chained to heavy chunks of wood at night, while army artillery shells fall perilously close, she said.

"(Kidnapped) soldiers and police live chained all day by the neck," Gonzalez told Colombia's Caracol Radio. "Whatever they have to do, wherever they have to go, to bathe, to wash their clothes, they carry their chains."

"We lived in horrible situations of risk, of high risk," she said "We practically felt the bombs going off only a few meters (yards) from where we were. Army helicopters firing machine guns also came very close. Living in war is a horror."

Gonzalez's husband died while she was held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the Andean country's largest left-wing guerrilla group.

She met her granddaughter for the first time on Thursday after she and fellow kidnap victim Clara Rojas were freed in a deal brokered by leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

The two women trekked for 20 days with a small group of rebels before reaching a forest clearing where they were picked up by Venezuelan helicopters painted with symbols of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Goodbye was ‘devastating’
Gonzalez and Rojas brought photographs and letters from 16 hostages still in the camps and said it was heart-rending to leave their former companions behind.

"The goodbye was devastating," Rojas was quoted as saying in a Venezuelan newspaper. "Obviously everybody wants to leave."

Thousands of people are killed or displaced every year by Colombia's four-decade-old conflict, which has been fueled over the last 20 years by a multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

The FARC holds hundreds of kidnap victims for ransom and political leverage.

Among them are high-profile captives like French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and three Americans whom the government says it wants to swap for jailed rebels. But the two sides are deadlocked over conditions for a hostage exchange.

Video showed gaunt hostage
In a video released by the FARC last year, Betancourt appeared gaunt and depressed sitting on a makeshift chair in the forest. She told her mother in a letter she was barely eating and that her hair was falling out in clumps.

Rojas, who was captured while campaigning in 2002 with presidential candidate Betancourt, said she was worried about her former running mate and had not seen her in three years.

Last year 11 kidnapped provincial lawmakers were killed when the rebels said an unidentified military force raided their makeshift jail. The government accuses the guerrillas of executing the 11 hostages.

Gonzalez, 57, and Rojas, 44, are in the Venezuelan capital Caracas undergoing medical checks before returning to Colombia.

Rojas said that when she arrives she will head straight for her 3-year-old son Emmanuel, who was born in captivity to a rebel father and has been living in a Bogota foster home.

Emmanuel was taken from her when he was 8 months old and placed by the rebels with a peasant family, which then turned the child over to state child welfare officials.