Ingrid Betancourt lived in that hell. A presidential candidate in 2002, she was kidnapped by guerrilla revolutionaries and held hostage for six years deep in the Colombian jungles. The daily horrors, terror, fears and ambiguities made her question her purpose and threatened to strip her of dignity, but also made her pull up core strength and stamina she didn’t know simmered deep within her.
How did she hold onto sanity when she was surrounded by aberrant behavior? When she was assaulted and ostracized by captors and fellow hostages alike, when every simple freedom had been denied her, when she endured bouts of solitary confinement because of her four escape attempts, when betrayal went deep and loyalty lisped, humanity evaporated and values were compromised?
She held onto a basic freedom that anchored her through those doubt-filled days and scary nights.
“I still had one freedom: to decide who I wanted to be and how I would carry myself,” she says. “I thought, ‘I won’t bend, won’t be what they want me to be.’”
Betancourt’s horrific ordeal came to life when she spoke at the University of California-San Diego, and again in her book, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle. An L.A. Times book review called it “an unforgettable epic of moral courage and human endurance.”
Born in Bogotá but raised in Paris, Betancourt held her politician father in high esteem and accepted his challenge to one day return to give back to their country. Her intentions were good; her timing was not.
She realized she needed to document her hostage experience to educate and enlighten and put into perspective the plight of the poor, of her country and of her own precarious position as a politician. The title of her book was inspired by a poem by Pablo Neruda and made her recognize her mortality and what would happen after death. She could be recognized and remembered because of her words. “I needed to transform those years I had lost into something positive,” she says.
She tells of clichéd lessons learned about a life well-lived. She tells of second chances. She tells of truths being unearthed, fallacies being shattered and how hope can be a driving force. She tells of fear taking root, unforgiving and all-encompassing. She tells of how her deep belief in com-passion and human justice faltered. She tells of how her family’s love sustained her.
Yet, writing the book wasn’t therapeutic.
“It was torture,” she says. “Other hostages were moving on and, because I was writing, I was still in the jungle. It would be very difficult for people to understand how we had lived in the jungle. Then there were problems when I arrived back in freedom. I couldn’t talk about it. The emotions are still vivid. But I needed to give testimony, share with my family what had happened.”
She wrote outside of France, in the mountains, white with snow, a heavenly world away from that hellish place. At the end of the day, to look through the window and see she was someplace else helped in healing as she faced the pages daily. “Recalling was not a problem. The problem was that we, the hostages, cannot forget.”
What Betancourt Learned About Humanity
In captivity with 14 other hostages, interconnections were made. Seeing human nature evolve and humanity disintegrate made Betancourt realize individual limitations, strengths and flaws. Personalities clashed and opinions on escape or securing freedom ran the gamut. How each of them dealt with adversity and humiliation was traumatizing but brought out the essence of a person and his or her strengths and weakness, explains Betancourt. They wanted to save and be saved. It was a humbling revelation for her. “We all want to be heroes, but we’re not. You’re just you.”
The abduction and captivity tested them, played mind games. “In abduction, you lose identity. Without freedom, we lose the compass to our soul, lose who we are. Without individuality, you question, who am I?”
There were thousands of silent moments because sentries would see their communication as threatening. Betancourt refers to different kinds of silences in her book. “We are beings of communication. When silence is an option, and is self-imposed and your choice, it’s sweet. When silence is an order, and is imposed, it’s similar to dying.”
Submitted to these extreme conditions, Betancourt likened the experience to a concentration camp – hostages in one crammed hovel, being watched 24 hours a day. She and her assistant entered a space already colonized by three American contractors and seven Colombians. Securing inches of space they could call their own became a mission.
“We knew we were manipulated,” she explains. “Guards wanted to divide us, but initially we felt solidarity and embraced love. We were like a family.”
That connection did not last as the days turned into years. Survival of the fittest became the mission as they scrounged for more food for sustenance, or something to read to keep their minds sharp, radios to listen to in order to stay connected with the outside world, and protecting any tiny semblance of personal connection to family so that they could stay sane. Guerrillas assaulted and humiliated them, peeling back layers of dignity, pride and humanity until all that was left was doubt and mistrust, and often, a disconnect between bodies and souls.
“It brought the awareness of true freedom we take for granted. I had lost all sorts of basic freedoms – to sit down, stand up, to sleep, have space. All of these were taken away. I lost everything.” There were points in her captivity where she could no longer bear her situation. She attempted to escape four times. “For every attempted escape, I got recaptured. But I never gave up. I would say, ‘next time I will succeed.’”
As the years passed, however, post-traumatic stress disorder started taking root. Stereotyped images were shattered. For Betancourt, the lack of resilience of fellow hostages who were American soldiers surprised her. These abducted military men and policemen who had been trained for war were not prepared for the mental wear and tear they experienced.
“I was amazed to see that once they were faced with extreme cruelty, humiliation and unfair treatment, they were not psychologically prepared to withstand it.”
That insight affected her personally, as well. “It was difficult to accept that I was not as strong as I thought I was.”
Fallacies Shattered/Truths Unearthed
Betancourt was running for president because she felt it was time for a change. In her capture, what changed dramatically was her viewpoint of the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, her captors. She had thought they would have something to say, to be reasonable and insightful, but their power trip made her unearth certain truths that shattered their image. “However, you have to draw a line between the FARC as an organization and the troop made by young men and women.”
According to Betancourt, the FARC started out with all the rebellious, chivalrous attitude and magnitude of saviors to the poor in the 1960s. It addressed land reform and social justice, equality and compensation. It promised a better life for those who followed the FARC instead of other politicians.
“Sometimes we think of radical as romantic,” says Betancourt. “There’s that romanticism that was associated with Che Guevara, fighting for the poor. I liked that idea.”
Instead, what she saw behind enemy lines as a hostage made her unearth a truth about the FARC and its stance on poverty. It did not fight for the poor to have better privileges or social justice, or to be fair, she says. It used the poor to get better opportunities for itself.
“I realized it was all fake. They lost their soul, their direction. It’s corrupted beyond belief. If they were really working for the poor, there would have been great strides made by now. One guerrilla said, ‘human rights are a bourgeois concept.’ And I had to take another look.”
For the guerrillas and peasants from around the country, a hierarchy existed in the jungle, with drug trafficking as a major source to obtain weapons and privileges such as better food and clothes. People can be very naïve and are duped, says Betancourt. Girls could become prostitutes and work their way up to be partner of a commander because that was a position of power and privilege and guaranteed a better life – or at least a way to fill a belly and leave destitute environments. Being a guerrilla – or with one – was an upgrade.
The FARC, however, lost credibility by holding the hostages so long as trophies and instruments of their propaganda, she believes. It became internationally known, but more as a band of terrorists or drug traffickers than rebels with a cause.
“This is not just Colombia’s problem,” says Betancourt. “It’s society’s problem, a global problem, a problem of terrorism. There is a very inhu-mane logic to their existence. Like Pandora’s box, the monster is unleashed.”
What Betancourt Learned About Herself
Betancourt looked to her family as inspiration, giving her principles and a work ethic that took her from dual citizenship and a life of privilege in Paris back to her roots in Colombia. She attended the Institute d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, also served in Colombia’s Congress. Her father, a diplomat, worked at the United Nations and was assigned to the embassy in Paris. Betancourt found herself becoming an anti-corruption activist and, when she moved to Colombia in the late 1990s, worked her way up from Colombia’s Finance Ministry to the House of Representatives and then the Senate. She didn’t like the endless corruption that distorted all the good that could be done by government and how it affected families. “There were things that I just couldn’t accept. The lack of justice always triggers things in me. It’s difficult to shut up when someone is being treated inhumanely, when something’s not right.”
That’s what led her to run for president and to come up against the FARC. After the hostages’ rescue by Colombian armed forces in 2008, the concept of freedom changed her perspective and life purpose. According to the New World Encyclopedia online, she is seen as “a courageous woman ... who sacrificed everything for her country.” She has received awards such as the Légion d’honneur and the Concord Prince of Austria award, as well as a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
to focus on calming her spirit, living an examined life and making up for lost time.
“In daily lives, we forget little details,” she says. “We give ourselves rea-sons not to be the best we can be. We are nasty because we’re tired or didn’t have breakfast or had a bad discussion. There is no justification for this when it can be harmful for the ones we love.”
She regrets not enough time with her father, who died while she was a hostage, with her children, with her mother, her sister. She has a deep admiration for them, for never giving up. Her father’s death affected her profoundly. “I thought I’d always find time later. Life proved me wrong. We suffered in a way not possible to describe. The most important thing is your present time, not some time in the future.”
Her heartache stretches to the political arena. A lawsuit was brought against the Colombian government because there is a law protecting victims of terrorism; they can claim compensation. “Other hostages asked for it, but when I did, it was a huge scandal.”
Seen as a political threat, she was attacked in court, and her reputation suffered, and she felt betrayed. “It was a lie, grotesque, unfair. Colombians hated me and turned a victim into a criminal. If I received a hundred times more compensation if I went back – I would never go back to that jungle or time in my life.”
She seeks instead inner peace to help her through the onslaught of celebrity status and personal bashing. “You go to that place inside of you. It doesn’t prevent you from facing problems and obstacles, but you can still retreat to it to put things into perspective. It doesn’t mean you won’t feel pain or feel sorrow, but you’ll be okay.”
Her Silence Has an End
Even after her ordeal, Betancourt has hope for healing – for Colombia and herself. “What happened to me and all my compadres was abominable, but pain allows you to grow in a spiritual way.”
In this day of technology at one’s fingertips, she hopes students and young people won’t lose sight of what is important – that humanity and connection that makes them take stock of their lives. “We have become, with all those toys that we have, very distracted. The availability you need to have, always answering to everyone except to yourself, with no time to be silent, can be detrimental.”
This is when she suggests silence.
“Take an hour a day, or whatever it takes, to ponder what you did during the day. What was right? What was not so right? What matters? Do not lose contact with your soul.”
Betancourt embraces that contact with her soul now. The haunted, sad look in her eyes she believes will stay with her forever, but even with that sadness, she can be grateful. “The essence of who I was died. I was harmed and wounded in many ways but persevered, even when I thought I was feeble.”
From her perseverance, she hopes her children have learned they can-not compromise essential principles. That there will always be causes like social justice, anti-corruption, and the fight against drug trafficking that need to be fought. That standing up for what one believes is right might result in sacrifices, consequences, even persecution. Sometimes, silence needs to be broken.
“For freedom, you have to be tough. You need to have a spine. You can’t give up, especially when you’re afraid.”