Authors: Ingrid Betancourt
But there was no movement near the hole. What was she doing? Why wasn’t she already outside? I got down on all fours to have a look inside. Nothing; except for the forbidding womblike darkness of the cage. I ventured to whisper her name. No answer. I slipped one hand inside and groped about. Nothing. Nausea was choking me. I stayed crouching by the hole, scanning every millimeter of my field of vision, sure that at any moment the guards would spring at me. I tried to calculate how much time had gone by since I’d come out. Five minutes? Ten? I could not tell. I was thinking at full speed, undecided, listening for the slightest noise, watching for the faintest light. In despair I bent down by the opening, calling to Clara so loudly this time that she must hear me on the far side of the cage, but somehow I already knew that there would be no reply.
I stood up. I was facing the dense jungle and the torrential rain, which had come to answer all my prayers of the previous days. I was outside, there was no going back. I would be alone. I had to be quick, leave right away, not try to understand. I checked to see if the rubber band holding my hair was still in place. I didn’t want the guerrillas to find even the tiniest clue of the path I would take. I counted slowly: one . . . two. . . . At the count of three. I dashed straight ahead, into the forest.
I ran and ran, driven by an uncontrollable panic, avoiding trees instinctively, unable to see or hear or think, forging straight ahead until I was exhausted.
At last I stopped and looked behind me. I could still see the clearing in the forest, like a phosphorescent light through the trees. When my brain began to work again, I realized that I was automatically retracing my steps, incapable of resigning myself to leaving without her. Carefully I went back, reviewing all our conversations one by one, reexamining all the instructions we had agreed on. There was one in particular that I remembered, and I seized upon it: If we got lost on the way out, we would meet up at the
We had mentioned it once, fleetingly, without really believing it.
Fortunately, my sense of direction seemed to be working in the jungle. In the grid of a big city, I could easily get lost, but in the jungle I could find my way. I emerged exactly level with the
Of course there was no one. The place was deserted. I looked around, disgusted by the swarms of insects above the holes, and my dirty hands, and my fingernails black with mud, and this incessant rain. I did not know what to do. I was ready to sink into despair.
I heard voices and quickly went back to hide in the thick of the jungle. I tried to see what was going on over by the camp, and I circled it to get nearer the cage, taking cover at the very spot where I’d come out. The storm had given way to a biting and persistent drizzle, and now you could hear other sounds. The commander’s loud voice reached my ears. It was impossible to understand what he was saying, but his tone was threatening. A flashlight lit up the inside of the cage, and its beam shone harshly through the hole in the board and then swept over the clearing from left to right, only inches from my hiding place. I stepped backward, sweating abundantly in my clothes; I had a terrible urge to throw up, and my heart was racing. That’s when I heard Clara’s voice. The suffocating heat now instantly gave way to a mortal chill. My entire body began to tremble. I could not understand what might have happened. Why had she been caught? Other lights appeared, other orders were given, a group of men carrying flashlights scattered; some of them were inspecting the area around the cage, the corners, the roof. They took their time over the hole, then shone their beams toward the edge of the jungle. I could see them talking among themselves.
The rain stopped completely, and darkness fell like a lead curtain. I thought I could see my companion’s silhouette inside the cage, thirty yards or so from my hiding place. She had just lit a candle, a very rare privilege; as prisoners we were not allowed to have light. She was talking with someone, but it wasn’t the commander. Their voices were calm, as if restrained.
As I looked at this inaccessible world, I found myself almost regretting the fact that I was alone and drenched and shivering. It would have been so easy, so comfortable, so tempting to admit defeat and return to that warm, dry place. I contemplated the patch of light and told myself that I couldn’t afford any self-pity, and I said over and over,
You have to go, you have to go, you have to go!
Painfully I tore myself away from the light and plunged into the thick, matted darkness. It had begun to rain again. I had my hands out in front of me to avoid obstacles. I hadn’t managed to get hold of a machete, but I did have a flashlight. The risk of using it was as great as the fear of doing so. I went slowly into this threatening space and told myself I would switch it on only when I couldn’t take the darkness anymore. My hands collided with wet, rough, sticky surfaces, and at any moment I expected to feel the burn of some lethal poison.
The storm was raging again. I could hear the thundering of the rain pounding on the canopy of vegetation that for a few more minutes would protect me. I expected the fragile roof of leaves to yield at any moment and open under the weight of water. The prospect of the flood that would soon submerge me was overwhelming. I no longer knew whether it was raindrops or my own tears that were flowing down my cheeks, and I hated to have to drag along this relic of a sniveling child.
I had already made considerable headway. A bolt of lightning tore through the forest, landing a few yards from me. In a burst of light, the space around me was revealed in all its horror. I was surrounded by gigantic trees and was only two steps from falling into a ravine. I stopped short, totally blinded. I squatted to catch my breath among the roots of the tree just there before me. I was on the verge of finally taking out my flashlight when I noticed intermittent flashes of light in the distance, headed my way. I could hear their voices now. They must be very near, because I heard one of them shout that he had already seen me. I camouflaged myself among the roots of the old tree while praying to the Lord to make me invisible.
I followed their progress from the swinging of their beams of light. One of them aimed his beam at me and dazzled me. I closed my eyes, unmoving, waiting for their shouts of victory before they seized me. But the light left me, strayed, came back for an instant, then went away for good, leaving me in silence and darkness.
I got up, scarcely daring to believe it, still trembling, leaning against the hundred-year-old tree to recover my wits. I stayed like that for minutes on end. Another bolt of lightning lit up the forest. From memory I cleared a path where I thought I’d seen a passage between two trees, while I waited for the next flash of lightning to free me from my blindness. The guards were gone.
My relationship with the night world began to evolve. It was easier to move ahead, my hands reacted faster, and my body was learning to anticipate the lay of the land. The sensation of horror was beginning to fade. My surroundings were no longer totally hostile. I began to think of these trees, these palms, these ferns, this intrusive undergrowth, as a possible refuge. The fact of being soaked, bleeding from my hands and fingers, covered with mud and not knowing where to go—all of this lost its importance. I could survive. I had to walk, keep moving, get away. At dawn they would resume the chase. But with each step I kept repeating
I am free,
and my voice kept me company.
Imperceptibly the jungle became more familiar, changing from the flat, dark world of the blind to a land in monochromatic relief. Shapes became more distinct, and finally the universe took possession of its colors: It was dawn. I had to locate a good hiding place.
I hurried my step, imagining their reaction, trying to guess their thoughts. I wanted to find some dip in the terrain where I could roll myself in my black plastic sheet and cover myself with leaves. The forest changed from gray-blue to green in the space of a few minutes. It must already be five o’clock in the morning, and I knew they’d be upon me at any moment. And yet the forest seemed so isolated. Not a sound, not a movement; time seemed to stand still. Deceptively reassured by the tranquillity of daylight, I found it difficult to maintain a heightened state of alert. I continued on my way, cautiously all the same. Suddenly, without warning, the space ahead of me filled with light. Intrigued, I looked around. Behind me the forest remained just as opaque. I then realized what it meant. A few feet away, the trees were thinning to make room for sky and water.
The river was there. I could see how it flowed in fits and starts, angrily sweeping along entire trees that seemed to be calling for help. The roiling water frightened me. And yet there lay my salvation.
I stood motionless. The absence of imminent danger repressed my survival instincts, and I listened to the voice of caution that told me not to jump in. Cowardice was taking shape. Those tree trunks swirling on the water, disappearing under the surface only to bounce back up farther downriver, their branches reaching to the sky—that was me. I saw myself drowning in that liquid mud. My cowardice invented pretexts to avoid diving in. With my companion I probably would not have hesitated; I would have recognized those trunks carried along by the current as perfect lifebuoys. But I was afraid. My fear consisted of a series of pathetic little fears. Fear of being soaked again, now that I had managed to get warm by walking. Fear of losing my backpack and the meager supplies it contained. Fear of being carried away by the stream. Fear of being alone. Fear of dying carelessly.
These thoughts shamefully exposed to me who I was. I understood that I was still such an ordinary, second-rate human being. I had not suffered enough to find the rage in my guts I needed to struggle to death for my freedom. I was a dog who, no matter how beaten up, would still wait for a bone. I looked around anxiously for a hole to hide in. The guards would come to the river, too, and search here more thoroughly than elsewhere. Of course I could go back into the thick of the jungle. But they were already on my heels, and I risked running into them.
Near the river there were mangroves and old rotting trunks, relics of long-ago storms. One tree in particular, difficult to get to, had a sizable recess on one entire side. The mangrove roots created a barrier all around it, and it seemed to provide the best hiding place. On all fours, then crawling and wriggling, I managed to make my way inside the hollow. I carefully unfolded the big plastic sheet that had been tucked within my boot since my escape. My socks were full of water, as was the plastic. I shook it out without thinking and frightened myself with the noise it made. I stopped everything and held my breath, alert to the slightest movement. The forest was already waking, the buzzing of insects getting louder. Reassured, I went back to my task of making the cavity of the trunk a safe haven, wrapped in my plastic sheet.
That is when I saw her. Yiseth.
She had her back to me. She had arrived at a trot, without her rifle, but with a revolver in her fist. She was wearing a sleeveless vest in camouflage material, and its femininity made her seem harmless. She turned around very slowly, and her eyes found mine instantly. She closed them for a second as if to thank the heavens and then walked toward me warily.
Her smile was sad as she extended her hand to help me crawl out of my hiding place. I no longer had the choice. I did as I was told. She was the one who carefully folded up my plastic sheet and flattened it lengthwise so that I could put it back in my boot. She nodded, and then, satisfied, she addressed me as if I were a child. Her words were strange. She did not use the self-conscious speech of the guards, who were always worried that a comrade might tell on them. At one point she looked at the river and, as if she were talking to herself out loud, her words filled with regret as she confessed that she, too, more than once, had thought of running away. I talked to her then about my children, my need to be with them, how urgent it was for me to go home. She told me about the little baby that she had left with her mother, although he was only a few months old. She was biting her lip, and her black eyes welled with tears. “Leave with me,” I said. She took my hands, and her expression turned cold again. “They would find us and kill us.” I begged her, squeezing her hands even harder, obliging her to look at me. She refused outright, took up her weapon, and stared at me. “If they see me talking to you, they will kill me. They’re not far. Walk ahead of me and listen carefully to what I have to say to you.” I obeyed, picking up my things, putting my backpack over my shoulder. She stuck right behind me and whispered, her lips against my ear. “The commander has ordered the men to abuse you. When they get here, they will scream at you, insult you, shove you around. Above all don’t react. Don’t say anything. They want to punish you. They’re going to take you away. . . . Only the men will stay with you. We women have to go back to the camp. Do you get it?”
Her words echoed in my brain, empty shells, as if I had lost my Spanish. I was making a great effort to concentrate, trying to go beyond the sounds, but fear had paralyzed my brain. I was walking without knowing that I was walking, I was looking at the world from the inside, like a fish in an aquarium. The young woman’s voice came to me distorted, alternately very loud, then inaudible. My head felt very heavy, as though it were being squeezed in a vise. My tongue was covered with a dry paste, stuck to my palate, and my breathing had become deep and heavy. As I was walking, the world was rising and falling to the rhythm of my steps. The resonant beating of my heart filled my inner space, causing my skull to vibrate.
I did not see them arrive. One of them circled me, his face red like a little pig’s, his blond hair bristling. He held his rifle above his head, arms outstretched, and he was jumping and gesticulating, indulging in a ridiculous, violent war dance.
A blow to the ribs made me realize that there was a second man, a short, dark man with powerful shoulders and bowed legs. He had just thrust the barrel of his rifle into the flesh above my hips, and he pretended he was restraining himself from doing it again. He was shouting and spitting, insulting me with crude, absurd words.