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‘Kidnapping’s suffering knows no limits’

A satchel of letters carried out of the jungle by two women freed by Colombian rebels details the heart-wrenching suffering and deprivation of the hostages they left behind.
Colombia Hostages Jungle Hell
In this reproduction of an undated photo, police Col. Luis Mendieta is seen in an unknown location in Colombia. The picture was sent to Mendieta's wife by his rebel kidnappers, who have kept him hostage for more than nine years. William Fernando Martinez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A satchel of letters carried out of the jungle by two women freed by Colombian rebels details the heart-wrenching suffering and deprivation of the hostages they left behind.

The letters from eight captive politicians, police officers and soldiers describe being chained by the neck, and suffering from malaria, tropical parasites, heart ailments and diarrhea so severe that one captive couldn't walk.

The testimony of Lt. Col. Luis Mendieta — his first communication to his family in five years — is among the most eloquent and painful in the letters given by the captives to Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez in a tearful parting after the rebels decided to free the two women.

In a Dec. 21 letter, Mendieta wrote that he is frequently tethered with two fellow captives by chains around their necks. He describes surviving two bouts of malaria, chronic chest pains and being so stricken by tropical ailments that he had to crawl on his hands and knees for about five weeks.

"I had to drag myself through the mud to relieve myself, with only my arms because I couldn't stand up," wrote Mendieta, the highest-ranking Colombian security officer still held.

In four pages of dense handwriting, the 50-year-old Mendieta said he had to be carried on a makeshift stretcher from camp to camp during the ordeal and lost all his meager possessions.

When he finally was able to walk again, "there was a misunderstanding in the group and someone ordered chains placed around my neck again, tethering me to a stick when I had just begun my convalescence."

‘I’ve been crying so much’
His wife, Maria Teresa Mendieta, has done her utmost to publicize the letter's contents despite the pain caused by constantly reading it aloud.

"I've been crying so much, my eyes are inflamed," she said on Wednesday in her Bogota apartment.

In addition to the letter describing his condition, Mendieta sent a separate "love letter" that she would not share as well as individual missives to each of his two children. He also sent five "proof-of-life" instant photos, including one showing Mendieta in a badly soiled blue track suit top with a darker mismatched bottom.

Maria Teresa Mendieta said she has managed her husband's nine-year absence with the help of psychotherapy and anti-anxiety medication.

"This is the only country in the world where this many people have been held hostage for so long," she said.

Colombia estimates the rebels still hold 750 hostages in small groups in far-flung jungle hideaways.

"They need to be freed now," said the Mendietas' 21-year-old daughter, Jenny.

Among the hostages often chained to Mendieta is former state governor Alan Jara, who was kidnapped in July 2001. His letter says he suffers chronic headaches due to a parasite that has apparently infected his brain, Jenny Mendieta said.

"He could die at any moment," she said.

U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield described the revelations as "authentically repugnant."

Mendieta was a police commander when guerrillas of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, overran his city on Nov. 1, 1998. Most people seized with him were freed in the rebels' last major hostage release, of 300 police and soldiers in 2001.

The eight captives held with Rojas and Gonzalez are among 44 hostages, including three U.S. military contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, whom the rebels hope to swap for hundreds of jailed comrades.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez brokered last week's release, and relatives of those still surrounded by barbed wire in jungle prisons pray he can help get the others out.

Former congressman Jorge Gechem wrote his wife that he had a serious heart condition and could no longer walk due to a badly injured back. He asked if Fidel Castro might get him transferred to a Cuban hospital. "If I recover immediately I could be moved to a jail in Havana as a political prisoner," he offered.

‘Resistance is flagging’
"I want to keeping living," Gechem added. "But my physical resistance is flagging."

Gechem was seized in February 2002 when the FARC hijacked his commercial flight, an attack that prompted then-President Andres Pastrana to dissolve a Switzerland-sized safe haven he had created to facilitate peace talks. The incident is one of many reasons President Alvaro Uribe has rejected the rebels' current demand for another demilitarized zone.

"After nine, eight and seven years of captivity, we've reached the conclusion that kidnapping's suffering knows no limits," Mendieta wrote to Caracol Radio, which broadcasts messages to the hostages every Sunday morning.

"But it's not the physical pain that wounds us, not the chains that we wear around our necks that torment us, nor the incessant ailments that afflict us. It's the mental agony caused by the irrationality of all this. It's the anger produced by the perversity of the bad and the indifference of the good."