Remembering Colombia’s Political Prisoners: An Interview with Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid Betancourt - Copyright 2008 Tess Steinkolk

Ingrid Betancourt. (Copyright 2008 Tess Steinkolk)

In early December, the Colombian guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced plans to liberate five of its more than 20 political prisoners on the website Last week I met the country’s most well-known former hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, in New York, to talk about the possible hostage release and what life is like for FARC’s political prisoners. Part of this interview aired on NPR Latino USA on Friday December 24.

Betancourt was kidnapped while campaigning for the presidency in 2002 and was held captive until 2008, when she was rescued with 14 others by the Colombian military. In her new book, Even Silence Has An End: My Six Years Of Captivity in the Jungles of Colombia, she chronicles her life as a political prisoner.

Betancourt, now 48, lived in a jungle prison and was marched through the jungle alongside the men who remain in captivity—soldiers, policemen and politicians whom the FARC holds without ransom as ‘chips’ to use against the government. In our interview, she described them in powerful terms: “Imagine beggars, like you could see in the streets, people with very filthy clothes, of course filthy themselves…. And imagine those beggars like slaves, chained by the neck to each other, in a row.”

The FARC made it clear in its recent letter that the hostage release was a gesture of solidarity with former Senator Piedad Cordoba, who in the past coordinated the hand-over of FARC hostages but who was recently found guilty of collaborating with the guerrillas by Colombian authorities. FARC also named the hostages it plans to release—three members of the armed forces and two politicians from the south, all of whom have been held between one and three years, making them among the most recently captured political prisoners in the group.

Betancourt said the news was cause for “immense hope,” but she expressed frustration that some of the longest-held prisoners were not scheduled to be liberated, and said that the ultimate goal remains to “see them all free.”

Listen to the interview on Latino USA:
[audio: latinousaingridbetancourt.mp3]

The following is a partial transcript of our interview, which took place on December 16th:

Annie Correal: The FARC has promised to liberate five of the political prisoners. Could you tell me a little bit about what that means?

Ingrid Betancourt: We’re just very excited at the prospect that some of our fellow inmates could be released […] I think that this is something important because the reality is that we don’t see any other option to have the 21 in the hands of the FARC freed […] We have seen two rescue operations, the one that rescued us and the one that rescued four other hostages, and it seems difficult to think there could be another one. The FARC hasn’t [made] any move to accept a negotiation with the government. Of course we would like to see them all free, the major impact of the news would be to have them all released. I don’t know why the FARC pretends to do this strategy of drops of a few people at a time.

AC: The political prisoners that you were held with – can you describe them for me, their physical condition, their psychological condition?

The ones who remain in the jungle are prisoners that have been held in captivity for more than ten years, so the psychology of course is different, because once we were released with these two rescue operations, it’s likely that […] they must be very depressed knowing that with all of us out, the pressure, international pressure for having them freed has been lowered substantially […] It’s very difficult to change that trend, we have been trying to put them on stage, to make people aware of their situation, but…So, first, their mental condition should be in a depressed mode. Probably they are being treated even [more] harshly because they have to prevent other rescue operations. At the time we were in, we were chained by the neck 24 hours a day but when we saw the last proof of survival that came from them they seemed to be chained by the neck and by the hands, and we don’t know if by the feet too.

AC: In one episode in your book you describe very movingly the first time that you saw them. What did they look like?

Imagine beggars, like you could see in the streets, people with very filthy clothes, of course filthy themselves—I mean hygiene is not something that you have access to easily in the jungle. And imagine those beggars like slaves, chained by the neck to each other, in a row. And carrying huge backpacks with all the things they have been able to save—old things, things that you recycle, old radios, pots, pans, old mattresses rolled in their bags, old clothes. Things that have no value for us in the real world, but for them it’s everything. And they are treated like animals, so they are frightened, they are insecure, they have lost the light in their eyes. They’re suffering, and they don’t see the end of the suffering.

AC: While you were in captivity, there were no liberations, there were no rescues, but one person [Jhon Frank Pinchao] managed to escape. Can you describe what it feels like for a prisoner to know that another made it out?

It’s a mixed feeling. Well, in my case it was different, because the guy who escaped was like my best friend. His escape we had planned it together, so for me it was a personal success. It was just, it was immense for me. But I could see for the others it was different because of course you’re happy for the one who’s out, but you have this frustration that it’s not you. All the feelings of envy, jealousy, sadness—all these things you come across too. It needs lots of love in order to transform that bitterness into hope. It’s something you don’t do easily.

AC: For hostages, the radio in Colombia plays a big role in keeping up morale. Can you describe what it’s like to hear these radio messages from your family when you’re out in the jungle?

It’s very important because it’s the only source of relief that you have on a daily basis. You are frustrated because you’re with people that humiliate you, that sometimes are cruel and sadistic, and you want to get home, and you cannot do it, and so by listening to the voice of your mom or your children or your wife or your husband it gives you the impression that you’re still alive in their hearts. And that’s very important because one of the highest amounts of pain comes from the idea that you have been abandoned and that people have forgotten you […] so the radio and those programs that broadcast those messages are very, very important. But at the same time, the radio is a source of anxiety because you hear all the news, and the absence of news about you is very hard to bear, when days and days accumulate without any kind of information about if the government is trying to negotiate with the guerrillas for your release. Not having your name on the news, not having people remember you exist—it’s something very diminishing and that brings lots of pain.

My situation was a little bit special because my name used to come a lot on the radio, and I used to think when I was in captivity that that would be good for all of us, and that everyone should be happy about it, but that wasn’t the case. Some of my fellow hostages would resent a lot the fact that I was named and not them, and it was difficult for me to understand, but now I understand why. Because in captivity you are deprived of your identity and if on top of that you are ignored by the world and somebody else is brought up all the time it’s [even] more humiliating. So I can understand what the soldiers and the policemen that are still in the hands of the FARC are feeling now and it must be very, very hard to cling to hope. I think that’s the worst crime the FARC has done in all the life of the organization, because they still have people that in a way—and it’s horrible to say this—but even the institutions to which they belong aren’t making it a priority to rescue them. So it must be very hard for them.

AC: And holidays are a particularly hard time in captivity.

Christmas is horrible because it’s a moment of joy except for you. So that’s at the top of the feeling of abandonment and exclusion. And you have to add to that the feeling that your absence is a pain for the ones that you love, so all those emotions mixed together. It’s very difficult to live through that day, the 24th and the 25th of December, you just don’t want to think it’s that day. It must be horrible for them today—what they’re living, knowing Christmas is approaching, on the radio they are listening to the villancicos, to the Christmas carols, they are listening to all the joy. On the radio it’s the moment where everybody wants to be happy and you convey messages of joy to everyone and in captivity it’s just like the feeling of a poor child looking into the window of a very beautiful toy shop, and not being able to even get into the shop, being excluded from joy.

AC: And now, if you were to send a message to the political prisoners who are still in the jungles, and they could hear you over the radio, what would be your message to them?

There are a couple of things I would like to say to them: There is not a day that passes by that is not a day they haven’t gained in strength […] because being in captivity can be transformed into a spiritual growth experience, and that’s important because you think life is passing by and you’re losing the time of your life, and that’s not true, every moment you’re learning something […] The second thought I would like to share with them is the power of words. I am sure they are going to come back very soon and I am convinced they are going to hug their family members in a matter of months. And I say it because when you say things and you believe in them—but if you say them especially—it changes the way the world goes round, and I want them to say it too […] And the other thing I want to tell them is to fill their hearts with love because it’s the best way to heal, and to know that we love them, that we’re waiting for them, that we pray for them, that they are important for us. I’d like to say some of the names of some of the guys that are still in the jungle because it’s a way of respecting their identity and to give them the strength to just confront the situation they’re in, to not forget that they are human beings, that they are precious for us. So I would like to say hello to Forero, to Lucho Beltran, to Robinson Salcedo, to, Duarte, Elkin Duarte, to Elibardo. Well, those are the ones I have in mind.

AC: After six years, you came back into a new world. What are the things you most appreciated, besides the companionship of your family and the people who love you? What are the things you still wake up and say you’re grateful for?

Well, little things are everything, because you cannot take anything for granted. For me, for example, one of the things that is most important to me are the smiles of people, it makes my day. If I get to a post office and I have to send a package and the person who’s in front of me says hello and smiles, I’m happy […] I try to smile, I try to work even the slightest contact with people so that I will get the good part of them […] When you have that rainbow of a smile—I think that’s the thing I appreciate the most today. And all the other little things—hot water, clean sheets, a warm house under a roof, feeling safe, the Blackberry—touching a button and hearing my daughter’s voice or being able to leave a message to my son, because I know he will never answer! All those things are just magic. And then the other incredible miracles that happen all the time. People that come and help you, and help you in a way that you have to think, Why? Why are they so nice? Miracles, miracles…

AboutAnnie Correal
Annie Correal is a reporter based in New York, where she has covered crime, immigration and breaking news for The New York Times and El Diario, and contributed radio pieces to WNYC, NPR and This American Life. She is working on a new, Spanish language storytelling podcast, Radio Ambulante ( scheduled to launch in 2012. Annie was born in Bogota and raised between California and Colombia.