Escaped rebel hostage Oscar Tulio Lizcano looked a crazy man — bearded, grimy, slumped on another man's shoulder and screaming from across a jungle river.
Soldiers on the other side ignored him — "they thought I was a drunk," Lizcano said in a radio interview Monday.
Only when the rebel who fled with the weakened Lizcano raised his Galil assault rifle did the soldiers begin to understand that the haggard figure on the river bank was escaping from leftist rebels.
The Conservative party congressman, 62, had been held for eight years in Colombia's western jungles. He is the first hostage of the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to gain freedom since the July 2 rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors.
It is also the first known case of a FARC fighter — Lizcano's chief rebel jailer — deserting with a hostage in tow.
Lecturing imaginary students
A day after he was airlifted to safety, Lizcano began revealing details of his long years in isolation. He said his captors didn't even let him talk to them.
"The solitude was terrible," he told Caracol radio.
So Lizcano, an economist by training, created imaginary students to lecture.
"At one point I stuck sticks in the ground and put the names of people on them with notebook pages and we would 'study' for three hours a day ... just like in a classroom," he said. "It was a way of entertaining myself."
Otherwise, Lizcano said, he passed the time reading, listening to the radio and occasionally playing chess with his captors.
In the last four months, he said, the rebels marched him daily through the jungle with 14 guards, about half men and half women.
On Thursday night, he and the group's commander, Wilson Bueno, departed at about 9 p.m. They hid during the day and didn't sleep for 72 hours, he said.
"We were always worried about being seen," he told Caracol radio.
The clinic in the western city of Cali where he spent the night said in a brief statement Monday that Lizcano was suffering from anemia, a sign of poor nutrition, and infections from parasites, but that his heart, lung and brain function appeared normal.
Bueno, meanwhile, was reunited with his girlfriend, who had fled his rebel column in June, and with his family.
Cash and asylum in France
President Alvaro Uribe said Bueno and his girlfriend would be rewarded with cash and asylum in France. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told The Associated Press that Bueno would receive a reward of about U.S. $400,000.
On Monday, France said it was doing a background check to ensure Bueno qualifies for asylum. Late last year, France offered asylum to FARC rebels who demobilize as part of an effort to secure the release of hostages including Betancourt.
Colombia's military has put withering pressure on the FARC since early 2007, killing or capturing top commanders and spurring record desertions and betrayals among rebels with lucrative reward offers.
Bueno had been in the FARC for a decade and lost his left eye four years ago in combat, said Col. Emiro Barrios, army commander in Pereira, where Bueno was reunited with his family.
Barrios said Bueno told him he decided to desert with Lizcano "because of the isolation, fatigue and hunger" he suffered in the last few months as the army blocked supply routes to his column.
The FARC still holds at least 20 high-value politicians, police officers and soldiers, including a provincial governor and a police colonel, some of whom have been in captivity for more than a decade.
It is now down to an estimated 9,000 fighters by government count — half its strength when Uribe first took office in 2002.