On July 2, 2008, news spread around the world that the Colombian army had rescued a group of 15 hostages from the hands of the Marxist guerrilla organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). Among the group of hostages was Ingrid Betancourt, a French Colombian national who was abducted during her campaign for the Colombian presidency in 2002. Betancourt's prominence as a politician and her dual French citizenship helped to bring the plight of the hostages to international attention as world leaders and human rights groups campaigned actively for their release.
Her recently published memoir, "Even Silence Has an End," tells the story of those six years spent in captivity in vivid and reflective detail. Although her descriptions of the violent and manipulative tactics employed by her captors are horrifying, her story is ultimately one of hope and perseverance in the face of extraordinary adversity. Stripped of even the most basic of human freedoms, isolated from her life and her loved ones beyond the jungle, Betancourt draws inside herself and finds strength in her faith and in the memory of her family, even as the passing years seek to widen the chasm between them.
You were held captive for over six years in often unimaginable conditions, and yet you write that you never lost the most important freedom of all which is the freedom to choose what kind of person you want to be. When I thought about that, I was pushed to the limits. I was chained to a tree by the neck and it had been a very rough day for me because in the evening a tropical storm had broken and I wanted to take shelter under a tent, and the commander said no. Then I needed to go to the bathroom and I asked if I could go somewhere and the guard told me that if I wanted to do something that I had to do it in front of him and he was not going to release me. So, it was very humiliating, and I was very depressed thinking that they were treating me like less than an animal. And that's when I thought they had taken away from me everything -- I mean, the right to stand up or to sit or to take shelter, to be dry, to walk or to talk to somebody or even to meet my bodily needs, everything. And then I thought -- no, they haven't taken the most important freedom of all which is to decide who I want to be, what kind of person I want to be. And that changed the perspective of my situation because I wasn't considering myself anymore as a victim.
Although you never waver in your condemnation of the FARC as an organization, you found sympathetic characteristics in many of their members who you encountered during your captivity. How did you reconcile these conflicting emotions? Well you see, the thing is that we were confronted with human beings. The organization is another thing. Sometimes people think of the FARC as a very romantic group of subversion, but that's not true. What they are is a militant organization for drug trafficking. They disguise themselves behind a political objective, but the truth is that they want to protect their own way of life. They are not struggling to help the poor. They are not struggling for social justice. They are using the poor to just build a system of corruption and crime. But that's the organization. Now when you confront the people, and especially the adolescents who are caught in that organization, you find that they are driven to get into the organization because they live in poverty and they think that perhaps there, they're going to have a better life. But then once they are inside the organization, they just acknowledge that it's a trap. If they try to escape they will be killed, and if they succeed in escaping, then their families will be killed.
So I had in front of me these human beings who sometimes were horrible and cruel and sadistic, because there were a number of conditions to be met that just unleashed the cruelty inside of them. They were armed so they could kill us. There were no witnesses. There was no law. There was a hierarchy so they could feel like they were obeying orders and not responsible for what they were doing. And then they had their peer pressure, their group pressure, and when all that summed together, they could just unleash the cruelty inside themselves, and they could become monsters. That's what I saw, but with some exceptions. There were people that would have the reflection of who they were and some maturity and they would not let themselves get into those extremes. I encountered people that could be compassionate and that could have a human attitude toward our suffering.
The relationships between fellow hostages were often strained by the conditions of your captivity, a fact that the FARC seemed to exploit to their own ends, and yet you managed to build several powerful friendships as well. Yes. I think the most incredible thing we had as hostages was this very strong bond between us. You can call it whatever you want: friendship, love, whatever -- but for me that's the most powerful, the driving force in the group. Now of course there were moments where we were just very much under pressure. We were packed in prisons, surrounded with barbed wires. We had to live on top of each other. We had little to eat so the battle for food became something that was present on an everyday basis. I remember companions saying they had to be fed more than we did because they were bigger, or because men had to have more food than women. And there were some of us who were ill, and would need special food, and whenever there was special food provided for the people that were sick, the others would protest.
I remember once they came to us in the morning and they asked us to number ourselves. I didn't understand what they were talking about, and then some of my companions just began the exercise, and the first one said "One," and the second "Two," and the third "Three," because we had to number ourselves to see if anybody had escaped. And when it came to me, I just couldn't say a number. I said my name, I said "Ingrid," and so there was this horrible, very heavy silence and the guards became very aggressive. I had to explain, "If you want to know that I'm here, that I didn't escape, you call me by my own name and I will answer." And that triggered a really nasty fight with some of my companions because they thought that it was an arrogant behavior and they told me, "Who do you think you are? Do you think you're better than we are? Why don't you answer like everybody?" And I told them, "I'm not going to do that because they want us to be like numbers, like objects. They refer to us as cargo, and I'm not going to play that game because I won't make it easier for them to kill us. If they want to kill us, they have to know that we are human beings."
Your memories of your family, and particularly of your father who passed away while you were in captivity, proved to be one of your greatest sources of comfort. Can you describe the importance of family to you in maintaining your sense of hope. It was very difficult for me when I discovered that my father had died. It was just horrible. And much later on, around a year later, I was in a very bad situation. I had tried to escape and I was captured and they were treating me with lots of violence and I didn't know how to react because I didn't know if I should fight back to protect myself. You see, for me the real risk was that, with the way they were brutalizing me, they could harm the core of myself, and I didn't know how to explain what I was feeling. But then I remembered my father, and I had this image of him standing up, very serious and very respectful to himself and I had this word coming to my mind: "Dignity." And even though I didn't know really what to make of that word, I understood that was what I was looking for and that the answer to how to react to what I was living through was in that word: "Dignity." That was what I had to protect. I know that if I hadn't had the image of my father, I wouldn't have had the ability of finding the answer.
Throughout the course of your captivity, you planned and implemented several elaborate escape attempts. How did you find the courage to take such incredible risks in going through with these attempts? I was obsessed with escaping, I was just obsessed. I couldn't just accept that these guys were going to keep me away from my family for years and years and years. I remember one guard once told me in a very cynical way that I would only be freed when I had become a grandmother. He said, "You will have your hair to your heels when you come out of the jungle." And the image of not being able to get back to my children for such a long period just made me crazy, and I needed to find a way to get out of there. So I did all that I could. I escaped many times and every time I learned something, because the problem for me was, more than how to escape and get out of the camp, how to survive in the jungle. Getting out of the camp was difficult, but I could manage because after all the guards were just people and I could find a way when they were distracted, or just plan my way out around them. But the very difficult part was how to survive in the jungle. At first I didn't have a clue. I was even frightened to drink the muddy water that was in the jungle because I was afraid I would get sick and die. Stupid things like that, because I was raised in a city and I had many fears. But after four or five days, I mastered all my fears and I became very skilled in surviving in that environment, and my driving force was my love of my children. While I didn't succeed in escaping, I remember every time I was captured back, every time, I would just tell myself, "OK, I didn't succeed this time, but next time, next time I will make it out."
What did it feel like to realize that you were finally being rescued? Well it was a miracle. When I look at the chain of events that were needed for that operation to be successful, I have to just think back and wonder, because I don't think all that was a coincidence. I believe in God, so for me it's very clear that something happened for this to be possible. None of us thought that it was a rescue operation when the helicopter landed. We all thought it was a plan of the FARC to transport us to another camp deep in the jungle. We had the rifles of the guerillas at our backs, with no other option than to just get inside the helicopter. Once we were inside, and it took altitude, the team that had come in that we thought were the allies of the FARC, they began punching the two commanders of the FARC that came into the helicopter with us and they neutralized them, they handcuffed them and before we realized what was going on, the leader of the team shouted, "We are the Colombian Army! You are free!" and for us, it took us a while to understand what this meant, because it happened in the snap of a finger. We were free and those who were our captors were now the prisoners, and it was just a shock.