Authors: Ingrid Betancourt
I asked them to set up another hut next to mine, up against the fence, for Clara and her child. I wanted to be near her, especially at night, to help her take care of the baby without disturbing the others. I had tried to make my request at the right time, with the right words, in a tone that left no room for suspicion. But they refused, and Clara returned to her place inside the barracks with her child.
I was so sorry, particularly as, very quickly, Clara refused my help and denied me any contact with the child. My companions rallied around her in turn, but she declined their help with equal stubbornness. It sank our hearts to witness her beginner’s clumsiness as she rebuffed our advice. The infant cried all day, and the receptionist removed him, putting him in the care of one of the female guerrillas.
“You don’t know how to do it!” Arnoldo shouted at Clara, exasperated.
I heard my companions telling her off, too.
“The bottle was scalding hot. You have to test it before you give it to him.”
“You’re going to make his diaper rash even worse if you go on wiping him with toilet paper! It’s like sandpaper for him!”
“You have to give him his bath every day, but you mustn’t move his arm. Otherwise it won’t heal.”
When they brought the baby back from his emergency caregiver, he looked much calmer. Too calm. I observed him from a distance. I spoke about it to Gloria and Consuelo. They, too, had noticed that something was wrong. The child wasn’t following things with his gaze. He reacted to sound, but not to light.
It was very painful to look at him. There was no point discussing this with his mother. We thought the baby might be sick, but saying so out loud wouldn’t help matters. If they had kept Clara in the camp to give birth, clearly they would do nothing to secure medical help for her child. They were prepared to let us die in prison, and that included newborn babies.
I would not forget the nurse impassively looking on while Lucho was having a seizure on the ground. Nor the way they had dealt with Jorge’s heart attacks. Lucho had revived him, massaging his chest, something he’d learned from his sister, a doctor. We begged them to give us some aspirin to thin Jorge’s blood and reduce the risk of a heart attack, to no avail. They eventually removed him from the prison, saying we had stressed him out, that we were responsible for his relapse because we fussed over him. He’d spent an entire week in the leather workshop, alone, lying on the ground.
We’d hoped that they gave him some medical care, but when he came back, he confessed that he’d had a series of other attacks and that the guard had done nothing to help him. Being alive, for every one of us, was becoming more and more miraculous.
Immersed in a world governed by cynicism, where our lives had become worthless, we had witnessed a reversal of values to which I could still not resign myself.
In the evening, stretched out in my hut, I followed with a heavy heart the petty trade that some of my companions had set up along the chain-link fence that surrounded us. Anything that might be the object of a transaction was brought there, with the aim of obtaining in exchange medication or food.
I had seen instances of fondling, when some of the guards, taking advantage of our distress and of our needs, pressed their demands ever further and increased our humiliation. Days would go by before I had the strength to say a word to the victim of such abuse.
It was disturbing to watch the way, for some, embezzlement was becoming a way of life. They justified it as a strategy to win the guerrillas’ trust, with a view to improving their chances of survival. Whatever their true reasons were, they befriended our torturers. They strove to provide proof of their allegiance every time the opportunity arose.
Whenever a shipment of clothing arrived, which was rare—once a year, twice at the most with a bit of luck—one of our companions would generally receive the most coveted item in the lot. Then later he would come out and say he didn’t want it, and instead of offering it to one of us, who could always have put it to good use, he gave it to a guerrilla he wanted to please. His gesture was duly appreciated, and in exchange he received favors of all sorts—like a greater quantity of better food in his bowl, or medication.
This attitude gained ground, and consequently some of us became mentally conditioned to see the guerrillas as figures of power and authority and to excuse them for all kinds of cruelty and abuse. Relations had been reversed, and, in contrast, fellow prisoners were viewed as rivals against whom aversion and hostility were nurtured.
We were beginning to behave like serfs trembling in the presence of a lord whom we would try to please to obtain favors, because we saw only the superiority of rank and not the human reality of the individual. We were becoming as obsequious as courtiers.
The suffering of Clara’s baby acted as a healthy catalyst for rebellion among our little community. The baby would go from hysterical crying, caused by the pain of his broken arm, to apathy, under the effect of the strong sedatives that the guerrillas gave him unrestrainedly. Tom, who had previously refused to support our hunger strike to protest our treatment, agreed this time to join us in demanding that the child receive pediatric care. We all went on strike. Lucho made himself a dunce cap and a sign on which he wrote, DOWN WITH THE FARC! Following him in single file, chanting slogans of protest, we marched in circles around the courtyard. Orlando had the good idea of fermenting some
a piece of brown cane sugar that he’d been keeping in reserve for a long time, to make some homemade alcohol called
“We won’t feel the hunger, and it will give us energy.”
The effect was almost immediate: diarrhea and intoxication all around! Our slogans degenerated. We went from demanding treatment for Clara’s child to protesting against our lack of food: “Down with the FARC! We’re hungry! We want corned beef!”
The spectacle was grotesque and we were so giddy that we ended up sprawled on the floor, unable to control fits of laughter whenever one of us had to run to the latrines for relief.
The guards looked on with consternation. We could hear our neighbors’ commentary through the wall: The military prisoners wanted to join in and go on strike as well.
The prison gate opened. We expected reprisals. Arnoldo came in, surrounded by two other guards, dragging a hemp sack covered in dust.
Some captives immediately went up to excuse themselves, trying not to fall into disgrace. “Arnoldo, I’m really sorry. You have to understand.”
The guerrilla stopped short, raising his hand. “Commander Sombra informs you that the prisoners have the right to protest and that the FARC guarantees that right. He asks you to protest quietly, because your shouts might alert any
who happen to be in the area. Here are some cans of tuna to be distributed between you. Commander Sombra orders the child to be removed from the prison because he isn’t a prisoner. He will live freely among us, returning from time to time to see his mother. We’re going to care for him and feed him well. You will be able to testify to this.” He dumped the hemp bag on the table and took the baby and all its things, then went away again, double-locking the gate, leaving us speechless.
The baby was growing and filling out before our eyes. Clara would take him, play with him for a few minutes, then hand him to the receptionist as soon as he began to cry. One evening it was Guillermo the nurse who brought him. We asked how they intended to care for his little arm. We demanded to know. He claimed that the baby had completely recovered, but we knew that was not true. Clara stopped the discussion. She thanked Guillermo for all he’d done for the baby and declared, “I wish you had been his father.” There was a chill, and then everyone went back to their business.
I often thought about the child. In a way, by agreeing to be his godmother, particularly in this jungle, I felt bound to him. When Arnoldo came, I would spend a few minutes interrogating him. I wanted to know how they were treating the baby’s diaper rash and the heat rash he had all over his body, and more than anything I needed to know what sort of diet he was getting.
“We’ll make a man of him,” answered Arnoldo. “We give him strong black coffee in the morning, and he loves it.”
That gave me the shivers. I knew it was a fairly common custom in Colombia. The poorest families could not afford powdered milk for infants, so they filled their babies’ bottles with coffee.
I remembered a little girl I’d found in a cardboard box inside a garbage can in the north of Bogotá. I was on my way back from Congress, looking distractedly through the car window, and was startled to see a small hand emerge from a pile of rubbish. I jumped out of the car and found this little baby girl bundled up in a filthy blanket that stank of urine. She had fallen asleep with a feeding bottle in her mouth, full of black coffee.
Her older brother was playing nearby. He told me that the baby’s name was Ingrid. Far less would have sufficed for me to see this as a sign from fate. I immediately called Mom to ask her if she had any room in her shelters for homeless children, for Ingrid and her brother who were sleeping on the street. . . .
A bottle of black coffee for an infant. This was a result of extreme poverty to be sure, but also of ignorance. I explained to Arnoldo that coffee was too strong a substance and not suitable for a baby, that he must try above all to get some milk. He looked at me, offended, and said, “That’s just bourgeois bullshit. We were all brought up like that, and we’re doing fine.”
Arnoldo had made it political. I knew it was useless to insist. For little things and big ones, too, we were at the mercy of the guards’ moods. Ferney had warned me: I had to wait for the right moment, use the right tone and the right words.
I’d failed miserably.
Unbelievably, September was nearly upon us. A painful cycle was beginning again. On the radio, tropical music was already announcing the Christmas season. I could not resign myself to the horror of being away from my children on their birthdays for the third year.
I wanted to celebrate my daughter’s nineteenth birthday, and I dreaded that yet again I would do something wrong. I wanted to make a cake for Melanie, so I monitored Arnoldo’s mood, looking for an opening to make my appeal.
But with each passing day, Arnoldo was becoming more tyrannical and disparaging, refusing to linger for a second to exchange a few words. And I did not want to make a big deal out of it. I knew that my plan had every chance of failing. Yet I also sensed, in an irrational way, that if I managed to celebrate my daughter’s birthday once again, it would be a good omen. The idea took hold of me, and I waited for an opportunity.
And then there was a moment of respite from my frustration. Sombra decided we were to have our teeth examined. Shirley, who’d had some nurse’s training, had been appointed the dentist. I seized the chance to ask for her help.
“I can’t promise you anything. But I’ll try to sell him on the idea for you to come and cook with us one afternoon. When is your daughter’s birthday?”
But the days went by, and they didn’t come to take me to the
I woke up on the morning of September 6, 2004, with a dream-kissed vision of my daughter before my eyes. I was glad I hadn’t spoken to anyone about my idea—no one could mock my failure.
Learn to desire nothing,
I told myself over and over again, to banish disappointment.
But after lunch the creaking of the hinges alerted me.
Behind Arnoldo came La Boyaca, looking sullen. She was holding an enormous cake. Arnoldo shouted my name.
“It’s for you. Commander Sombra has sent it.”
The cake was nicely decorated and had written across it, HAPPY BIRTHDAY MELANIE, FROM THE FARC-EP. I jumped for joy, like a little kid, and spun around to share my emotion with my companions. Keith turned on his heel, furious. I recalled a conversation I’d had with him months earlier: Our daughters were born two days apart. The others brought their bowls, and I called to him, insisting he join us, too.
We still had some
left from our strike, so strong it was frightening. This was the perfect time to enjoy it.
Before slicing the cake, I raised my glass and said, “Today we are celebrating two important events: the birth of Lauren and the birth of Melanie. May God give them courage to be happy despite our absence.”
When our little celebration was over, Keith gave me a hug. He looked at me, his eyes moist and his voice thick when he said, “I’ll never forget what you just did.”
On the radio news, the lead story was the deployment of troops in the Amazon as part of the Plan Patriota. The generals were going after Mono Jojoy, the report said; they were breathing down his neck, and he was sick and having trouble keeping up the pace. Mom was interviewed. She asked President Uribe to suspend operations and agree to negotiate with the guerrillas. She was afraid we would be massacred.
I also heard Fabrice, my ex-husband, interviewed on Radio France. I was happy to hear him. I was thankful he was an incredible father, and I knew that his fortitude helped keep our children going. However, this time he seemed very sad. He insisted on his right to fight for us at a time when doing so was perceived as a French intrusion into Colombian affairs. He wanted to send me a message. He wanted to give me hope, but as he spoke, he burst into tears. It broke my heart. I understood then how bad our situation was.
We began to prepare for departure, sorting through our things, choosing what to take. With the Plan Patriota, if the soldiers got any closer, we would be made to march into the jungle to shake them off.
I had never made any real marches. Orlando, on the other hand, was a veteran of marches that lasted for weeks. He said they had marched in pairs, chained together at the neck. When one fell down from the weight and fatigue, he would pull the other one down with him. The
they’d set off with were extremely heavy, and they had to throw out their treasures along the way to make them lighter. Their greatest fear was in crossing the tree trunks that served as bridges, because if you took a wrong step, both of you were in danger of being strangled or drowned.
With Lucho, we decided to prepare ourselves as best we could, above all to be in good physical condition to flee, in the event we were caught in the crossfire between soldiers and guerrillas. We had agreed on a set of signals to be able to rush off together at the slightest alert, in the hope of catching up with the army if the opportunity arose.
I spent mornings climbing up and down my footstool and carrying the
on my back, full of the things I planned to take with me. I hadn’t favored any one item over another, because I knew I needed everything. However, I made a list of the things that were emotionally important to me, that helped me carry on. Some of them I clung to as to my life.
The first of these was an envelope with a series of letters that Sombra had brought to me that had been delivered through the offices of the church. In my packet there was a long letter from Mom, which I read every day.
She had written it hurriedly, following a phone call from Monsignor Castro, who told her there was a possibility of contact with the FARC. Mom wrote, “I was angry with the Virgin Mary, because she wasn’t listening to me. I had told her, If you don’t give me any news of my daughter by Saturday, that’s it, I won’t pray anymore.”
Mom received a call to tell her that the proof of life had arrived Saturday before noon. She’d been startled on hearing in the video that I asked her to say the Rosary with me, every Saturday on the dot of noon. She saw these coincidences as a sign, an answer, a protective and active presence. As for me, I made this Saturday prayer the high point of my week. Consuelo and Gloria never failed to remind me when it was time.
Reading Mom’s letter had become part of this almost mystical routine I enacted to drive away the demons that had invaded my life. When I read it, I entered a world of goodness, rest, and peace. I heard her voice, echoing in my mind as I read the words she formed in her lovely handwriting. I followed the pauses in her thoughts, the intonation of her voice, her sighs and smiles, and she appeared there before me. I saw her in the splendor of her generous nature, always beautiful, always content. With this little scrap of paper, Mom stopped time. I had her all to myself, with each reading.
This letter was more precious to me than anything. I wrapped it up in some plastic I’d rescued during the most recent shipment of gifts, after a fierce, ridiculous struggle with one of my comrades who wanted it, too. I sealed it with sticky labels from deodorant bottles, to keep it dry, if ever I fell into a river. I’d done the same with the photographs of my children that she had included in the letter, and the drawings from my four-year-old nephew, Stanislas. He had portrayed my rescue by the Colombian army, with a helicopter taking me away even though I was still asleep—and of course he was the pilot. There was also a poem from Anastasia, my sister Astrid’s seven-year-old daughter, written with her inventive child’s spelling, in which she asked her grandmother not to cry, to dry her tears, because her daughter would return to her one day, “in a moment of craziness, a moment of magic, a moment from God, in one day or three years, it doesn’t matter. She will come back!”
Sitting cross-legged on my bed, I’d spread all my treasures out in front of me. Gazing at my children’s photographs for a long time, I observed their faces, the expressions in their eyes, their haircuts, their features that sometimes looked so much like their father’s and sometimes so much like mine. I analyzed those instants that had remained frozen on a scrap of paper, and I found it so hard to look away. It was painful, wrenching. This luxury did not weigh a thing. I had folded it in such a way that it would fit into my jacket pocket.
If ever I have to leave at a run and abandon my backpack, I’ll have saved my letters. And if they kill me, at least they’ll know who I am.
There were also the jeans that Melanie had given me. They were too heavy, but I was reluctant to leave them behind. When I wore them, I became myself again. And through them I was clinging still to my daughter’s love. I couldn’t let go. Worse yet, there was my jacket! It was fairly light to be sure, but so bulky. Finally there was the dictionary. It weighed a ton.
Lucho offered to carry my jacket so that I’d have room for it. Orlando agreed to take my jeans, Marc my Bible.
I was ready for the march. However, as the weeks went by, nothing happened. The rumors seemed to be just that—rumors. We settled back into our boredom, which now, with the dreadful prospect of a march, seemed like bliss.
It was my son’s birthday. On that Friday, October 1, 2004, when the gates opened, I hurried over, sure that Arnoldo had come to take me to the
But he was there for another reason.
He told us to prepare our bags as lightly as possible. We would be marching until Christmas. We would take supplies. There wouldn’t be much food. “Sombra is also sending you bottles of vodka. Enjoy them—it’s the last time you’ll see any. Drink some before we leave, and it’ll give you a boost to start the march. I warn you: It might be really tough. We have to walk quickly, and for long stretches. To console you, here’s a piece of good news: You’re having pork at lunch. You’ll have a good meal before leaving.”
Off in the distance, I could hear pigs squealing. Poor beasts, the guerrillas preferred to force-feed us than to leave anything behind for the military.