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Authors: Ingrid Betancourt

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BOOK: Even Silence Has an End
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I arrived at the opposite end of the camp, where the commander, Andres, had his tent, and I tried to anticipate what sort of tone he might adopt for this private audience.

Andres was a man who was just reaching maturity, with the fine features of a Spaniard and copper-colored skin. I had never found him truly dislikable, even though from the day he took command of this mission he had made a point of being as inaccessible as he could. I sensed that he had a strong inferiority complex. He managed to emerge from his pathological mistrust when the conversation turned to everyday life. He was madly in love with a pretty young thing who hungered for power, and she had him wrapped around her little finger. She was obviously bored with him, but being the commander’s woman gave her access to some of the luxuries of the jungle. She reigned over the others, and as if somehow it went with being queen, she was putting on weight before our very eyes. Perhaps he thought I might be of use to him in decoding the secrets of this female heart he coveted more than anything. On several occasions he would stop by to talk with me, beating around the bush, lacking the courage to come straight out with his thoughts. I helped him to relax, to talk about his life, to share his personal thoughts. In a way it made me feel useful.

Andres was above all a peasant. His greatest pride was that he had learned how to adapt to the demands of life as a guerrilla. Small but sturdy, he was better than anyone at doing what he required his men to do. He earned respect by fixing his subordinates’ slapdash work himself. His leadership resided in the admiration he galvanized in his troops. But he had two weak spots: alcohol and women.

I found him sprawled on his camp bed, indulging in a tickling session with Jessica, his partner; her squeals of pleasure carried beyond the river. He knew I was there, but he hadn’t the slightest intention of allowing me to think they might interrupt their game for my sake. I waited. Eventually Andres turned, gave me a disdainful look, and asked what I wanted.

“I’d like to talk to you, but I think it would be better if we were alone.” He sat down, ran his hands through his hair, and asked his girlfriend to leave, which she did, pouting and dragging her feet. After a few minutes, he asked the guard who had come with me to leave as well. Finally he looked at me.

The hostility and harshness he displayed signaled that he was not the least bit sensitive to the sight of this ravaged creature in chains who stood before him. We were sizing each other up. It was odd for me to be this pivotal in a scene where all the workings of human machinery were becoming so patently obvious. I knew there were far too many things at stake, things that, like the jagged cogs of a clock, depended upon one another to set them in motion. First of all, I was a woman. Faced with a man, he might have been indulgent; it would have revealed his nobility of heart and thereby increased his prestige. But in this case he knew he was surrounded, that dozens of pairs of eyes were watching him all the more eagerly since they could not hear him, so his body language had to be flawless. He must treat me fiercely, to avoid any risk of appearing weak. Still, what they had done was hateful. The written codes by which they were supposed to abide left no room for doubt. So they had to seek refuge in gray zones, justifying themselves with what they called the casualties of war: I was the enemy, I had tried to escape.

The punishment they had inflicted upon me could not be considered an error that they might have to explain, or even a blunder they could try to hide. They pretended that what had happened was the price I must pay for the affront I had made them suffer. There would therefore be no sanctions against his men, let alone any consideration for me.

I was an educated woman and consequently terribly dangerous. I might be tempted to manipulate him, to bamboozle him and cause his undoing. As a result he was more than ever on his guard, stiff with all his prejudice and guilt.

I stood before him, filled with the serenity of detachment.
had nothing to prove. I was defeated, mortified beyond bounds, there was no place left in me for pride. I could live with my conscience, but I wanted to understand how he could live with his.

The silence that came between us was the fruit of my determination. He wanted to get it over with, while I wanted to observe him at leisure. He was looking me up and down, while I was examining him. The minutes went by one by one. “Well, what do you have to say to me?” He was defying me; he could not stand my presence, my obstinate silence. Then I heard myself continue out loud, very slowly, a conversation I had been carrying on in my head ever since I’d returned to my cage.

He was transported imperceptibly into the secret place of my pain, and as I gradually revealed to him the depth of my wounds, as if he were a doctor to whom I could exhibit the full horror of my suppurating gash, I saw him turn pale, incapable of interrupting, both fascinated and disgusted. I no longer needed to talk to free myself from what I had experienced. That is why I was able to describe it to him with precision.

He let me finish. But as soon as I raised my eyes, which betrayed my secret desire to hear what he had to say, he regained his composure and delivered the blow he had meticulously prepared before I’d even gotten there: “That’s what you say. But my men tell me otherwise. . . .” He was lying on his side, leaning on his elbow, casually fiddling with a twig he had in his mouth. He raised his eyes and looked straight out at the other tents in a semicircle around his own, where his troops had settled in to watch our conversation. He paused, then continued, “. . . And I believe what my men tell me.”

I began to weep, uncontrollably, unable to stanch the flood of tears—a reaction that was all the more unexpected given that I was unable to identify the feeling that had triggered it. I tried to contain the onslaught of tears with my sleeves, which smelled of vomit, and by brushing aside the strands of hair that stuck to my streaming cheeks as if deliberately increasing my confusion. I hated my lack of restraint. My anger left me pitiful, and the knowledge that I was being observed only intensified my clumsiness. The idea of leaving, of heading back across the camp, enchained as I was, obliged me to concentrate on the simple mechanics of movement and helped me to lock up my emotions.

When Andres felt he was no longer under scrutiny, he relaxed, giving free rein to his malice. “I have a sensitive heart . . . I don’t like to see a woman cry, still less a prisoner. Our regulations stipulate that we must show consideration for our prisoners.” He grinned, aware that he was delighting his audience. With one finger he beckoned to the man who had brutalized me. “Take her chains off. We’re going to prove to her that FARC knows how to show consideration.”

It was unbearable to endure the touch of that man’s hands, brushing my skin as he put the key into the padlock hanging from my neck.

He was smart enough not to make too much of it. Then he knelt down, not looking at me, and removed the chains that hobbled my feet.

Relieved of the weight, I wondered what I should do. Should I leave without asking for anything more or thank the commander for this gesture of mercy? His indulgence was a move in a pernicious game. The aim was to go one better in snubbing me, by means of an ingenious stunt that left me indebted to my torturer. He had planned it all, enrolling his subordinates as his henchmen. He had gone from being the instigator of his villainy to pretending to be its judge.

I chose a way out that would once have cost me so dearly. I thanked him, in the proper manner. I needed to cloak myself in rituals, to regain whatever it was that made me a civilized human being, shaped by an upbringing that was part of a culture, a tradition, a history. More than ever, I felt the need to mark my distance from the barbarity. He looked at me with astonishment, uncertain whether I was making fun of him or whether I had capitulated.

I headed back to my cage, aware of all the mocking gazes of disgust that, in spite of everything, I had gotten off lightly. They all must have concluded that the old crying trick had finally gotten the better of their commander’s obstinacy. I was a dangerous woman. Surreptitiously, the roles had been reversed—no longer a victim, I was now feared: I was a politician.

Politician. It was a word that contained all the class hatred with which they were brainwashed daily. Indoctrination was one of the commander’s responsibilities. Each camp was built on the same model, and each featured a classroom where the commander communicated and explained his orders, where everyone was expected to denounce any nonrevolutionary attitude displayed by their comrades. They risked, if they failed to do so, being considered an accomplice, being brought before a court-martial for sentencing and being shot.

They’d been told that I had run for president of Colombia. I belonged, therefore, to the group of political hostages whose crime, according to FARC, was that they voted to fund the war against FARC. As such, we politicians had an appalling reputation. We were all parasites, prolonging the war in order to profit from it. Most of these young people did not really understand the meaning of the word “political.” They were taught that politics was an activity for those who managed to deceive and then amass wealth by stealing taxes.

For me the problem with their explanation was that to a large degree I shared it. Moreover, I’d gone into politics in the hope, if not of changing things, at least of being able to denounce injustice.

But, for them, anyone who wasn’t on the side of FARC was scum. It would be pointless for me to wear myself out explaining my struggle and my ideas to them. They weren’t interested. When I told them that I had gone into politics in order to fight against everything I hated—corruption, social injustice, and war—their argument was irrefutable: “You all say the same thing.”

I headed back to the cage, freed from my chains but burdened with this hostility mounting against me. It was then that I heard for the first time that FARC song, set to a childish little tune:

Esos oligarcas hijueputas que se roban la plata de los pobres,
Esos burgueses malnacidos, los vamos a acabar, los vamos a acabar.

In the beginning it was a humming sound, coming very quietly from one of the tents; then it began to move around with me wherever I went. I was so lost in my ramblings that I didn’t even react. Only when the men’s voices began to chant the verses, deliberately articulating very loudly, did I raise my head. Initially I did not grasp the meaning of the words, since their regional accent often distorted them, but they were raising such a fuss about this little ditty that it ended up making everyone laugh, and the change of mood brought me back to reality.

The man singing was the very same one who had removed my chains. He was singing with a sneer on his face, very noisily, as if to set the rhythm for his gestures, pretending the whole time to be putting his things away inside his backpack. The other one singing, who had come all the way from his tent on the far side, was a puny, bald, pathetic sort, in the habit of closing his eyes every two seconds as if to ward off a blow. One of the girls was sitting on the guy’s mat ogling me and clearly thought it was great fun to accompany her stare with this tune that, visibly, they knew by heart. I hesitated, wearied by everything I’d been through; I told myself that in the end I did not need to feel targeted by the words of the song. Their attitude conveyed the meanness of a playground at recess. I knew that the best thing would be to turn a deaf ear, but I did the opposite and stopped. The guard who was glued to my heels nearly collided clumsily with me, which made him mad. He yelled at me to keep moving, enjoying the fact that he had an entire audience he’d won over effortlessly.

I turned to the girl who was singing to herself. I heard myself say, “Don’t sing that song around me anymore. You have guns, and the day you want to kill me, you can just go ahead.”

She continued singing with her companions, but her heart wasn’t in it. They could not make a nursery rhyme out of death. At least not in front of their victims.

The order to bathe arrived soon enough. The afternoon was nearly over, and they informed me that the time allowed would be very short. They knew that bathing was the best moment of the day for me. To have it curtailed was an indication of the regime that I should come to expect.

I said nothing. Escorted by two guards, I went to the river and jumped into the gray water. The current was still very strong, and the water level had not stopped rising. I clung to a protruding root by the riverbank and kept my head underwater: I opened my eyes wide, hoping to wash away everything I’d witnessed. The water was icy. It awoke every painful spot in my body, and it hurt to the very roots of my hair.

The meal arrived as I got back to the cage. Flour, water, and sugar. That evening I huddled in my corner, with dry, clean clothes, and I drank my
not because it was good but because it was hot. “I will not have the strength to face any more days like this one,” I said. I had to protect myself, even against myself, because it was clear that I did not have the strength to endure for much longer the treatment to which they were subjecting me. I closed my eyes before night fell, hardly breathing, while I waited for it all to subside: my suffering and anxiety, my solitude and despair. During the hours of that night without sleep, and during the days that followed, my entire being undertook a curious path that led to the hibernation of my body and soul, waiting for freedom like the coming of spring.

The next day dawned, as on all the mornings of all the years of my entire life. But I was dead. I tried to fill the endless hours, occupying my mind with anything that could distract me from my own self. But the world no longer interested me.

I saw them coming from the other end of the camp. They had crossed it silently, one behind the other, or rather one pushed by the other. When they had drawn level with the guard station, Yiseth spoke in the guard’s ear. He motioned with his chin for them to go through. She whispered something that seemed to bother him and pushed him forward.

BOOK: Even Silence Has an End
7.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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