Authors: Ingrid Betancourt
“We would like to speak to you,” she said to me, while I tried my best to not seem concerned.
She was wearing the same sleeveless camouflage shirt as the night before. And had the same hard, secretive air, which aged her.
I looked up at her, my eyes heavy with bitterness. Her companion was one of the three men who had brutalized me in the swamp. His presence alone gave me a shiver of repulsion. She realized and nudged her companion with her shoulder. “Go ahead, tell her.”
“We are . . . I came to say that . . . I’m sorry. Please forgive me for what I said to you yesterday.
Yo no pienso que usted sea una vieja hijueputa. Quiero pedirle perdón. ¡Yo sé que usted es una persona buena!”
The scene was surreal. This man had come to apologize, like some kid scolded by a strict mother. Yes, they had called me every vile name. But that was nothing compared to the horror they’d put me through. It was all absurd. Except for the fact that they had come. I was listening. I thought I was indifferent.
It took me time to understand that these words, and the way in which they’d been said, had actually soothed me.
FEBRUARY 23, 2009
It is exactly seven years to the day that I was abducted. On every anniversary, as soon as I wake up, I wince when I realize what day it is, even though I’ve known for weeks that it is getting closer. I consciously count backward, wanting to mark this day so that I never forget it, so that I can dissect and ruminate over every hour, over every second of the chain of events that led to the prolonged horror of that interminable captivity.
I awoke this morning, as I have every morning, giving thanks to God. And also as I do every morning since I was freed, I take a few moments, just seconds, to realize where I’ve been sleeping. On a mattress, without a mosquito net, and under a white ceiling instead of a sky of green camouflage. I awake naturally. Happiness is no longer a dream.
But on this particular day, February 23, a split second after waking I feel guilty for not remembering. I am surprised, stunned, remorseful for forgetting. My guilt and anxiety drive my memory to distraction, causing such a flood of recollections that I have to leap out of bed to escape my sheets, as if mere contact with them could cast some irreversible evil spell upon me and engulf me once again in the depths of the jungle.
Once out of danger, my heart still pounding yet anchored in reality, I realize that the relief that comes from recovering my freedom cannot in any way be compared to the intensity of the suffering I have known.
I’m reminded of a Bible passage that had struck me while I was in captivity, a hymn in the book of Psalms that described the harshness of crossing the desert. The conclusion had come as a surprise to me. It said that the compensation for the effort, courage, tenacity, and endurance displayed during that journey was not happiness. Nor glory. What God offered as a reward was only rest.
You need to grow old to appreciate peace. I had always lived in a whirlwind of activity. I felt alive. I was a cyclone. I had married young, my children, Melanie and Lorenzo, fulfilled all my dreams, and I undertook to transform my country with the strength and stubbornness of a bull. I believed in my lucky star, and I worked hard and could do thousands of things at once, because I was sure I would succeed.
I was on a short trip to the United States, accumulating sleepless nights and back-to-back meetings while seeking support from the Colombian community for my party, Oxígeno Verde, and for my presidential campaign. My mother was traveling with me and we were together when I received a call from my sister, Astrid. Papa was unwell, although it was nothing serious. My parents had separated many years earlier, but they had stayed close friends. When my sister explained that Papa was tired and had lost his appetite, we immediately thought of my uncles and aunts, who had all died suddenly after feeling a little unwell. Two days later Astrid called: Papa had suffered a heart attack. We had to return immediately.
The journey home was a nightmare. I adored my father. Time spent with him was always interesting. I could only imagine life without him as a desert of boredom.
I arrived at the hospital to find him hooked up to a frightening-looking machine. He awoke, recognized me, and his face lit up. “You’re here!” he exclaimed before falling back into a deep, barbiturate-induced sleep, only to open his eyes ten minutes later and exclaim once again, “You’re here!”
The doctors told us to prepare for the worst. The parish priest came to administer a blessing. In a moment of lucidity, Papa beckoned all of us to his bed. He had chosen his words of farewell and lavished blessings on each of us with the precision of the sage who can peer into people’s hearts. Then my sister and I were left alone with him. I realized that it was time for him to go, and I was not prepared. I broke down in sobs, desperately clinging to his hand. The hand that had always been there for me, that had warded off danger, had consoled me, had held on to me when I crossed the street, had strengthened me at those difficult times in my life, and had led me into the world. This was the hand I took whenever I was near him, as if it belonged to me.
My sister turned to me. “Stop it!” she said sharply. “We are in a logic to fight for life. Papa is not going to die.” Taking his other hand, she assured me that everything would turn out fine. She was holding him tight. In the midst of my sobs, I felt that something extraordinary was happening. A wave of electricity was running from my arm and flowing through my fingers into his arteries. The tingling left me in no doubt. I looked at my sister. “Do you feel it?” Without a trace of surprise, she replied, “Of course I feel it!” We probably spent the entire night in that position, shrouded in silence, feeling the circuit of energy that had formed among the three of us, fascinated by an experience that had no explanation except that of love.
My children came from Santo Domingo, too, with their father, Fabrice, to see Papa. Fabrice was still very close to him even though he and I were no longer married. Papa considered him like his own son. When I was with Melanie and Papa alone, she also experienced the strange wave of electricity when holding his hand. My father opened his eyes when Lorenzo kissed him; Astrid’s young children, Anastasia and Stanislas, were there wanting to be cuddled by him. Papa was so happy to have his family reunited by his bedside that he started getting better.
My mother and I stayed with Papa throughout his two-week recovery, living with him at the hospital. I knew I would not have the strength to carry on if he was no longer by my side.
I’d been in the middle of a very important campaign time for our party. Oxígeno, the Green Party, was still young; created four years earlier, it brought together a passionate organization of independent citizens who were fighting against years of political and military corruption crippling Colombia. We were putting forward an alternative ecological and pacifist platform. We were “green,” we were about social reform, we were clean in a country where politics went hand in hand with the drug kingpins and the paramilitaries.
Papa’s illness had suddenly halted all my political activities. When I disappeared from the public spotlight, my poll numbers plummeted. Some of my colleagues deserted my campaign in panic to swell the ranks of rival candidates. After I left the hospital, I found myself with a much smaller team to prepare for the final sprint. The presidential elections were to be held in May. We had only three months left.
During the first meeting with the entire team, we set out the agenda for the remaining months. The discussion was heated. The majority wanted to go ahead with the long-planned visit to San Vicente del Caguán. My campaign managers were eager for us to help out the mayor of San Vicente, who was the country’s only elected mayor to bear the colors of Oxígeno Verde. Our staff wanted me to make an extra effort to compensate for the weeks I’d been at Papa’s bedside and to put all my energy into the campaign. I felt I owed it to them, so I reluctantly agreed to go to San Vicente. We announced the trip at a press conference during which we explained our peace plan for Colombia.
In the 1940s, Colombia was plunged into a civil war between the conservative party and the liberal party, a conflict so merciless that those years were called
—“the violence.” It was a power struggle that spread from the capital of Bogotá and brought bloodshed to the countryside. Peasants identified as liberals were massacred by conservative partisans and vice versa. The FARC
was born spontaneously as the peasants’ effort to protect themselves against that violence and to safeguard their land from being confiscated by the liberal or conservative landlords. The two parties reached an agreement to share power in government and end the civil war, but the FARC was not a part of it. During the Cold War of the 1950s and beyond, the movement shifted from being a rural, defensive organization to being a communist, Stalinist, guerrilla one seeking to take power. They built a military hierarchy in their ranks and opened fronts in different parts of the country, attacking the military and the police and carrying out indiscriminate kidnappings. During the 1980s the Colombian government offered a peace agreement to the FARC, and a truce was signed and political reforms were voted in Congress to support the agreement. But with the rise of drug trafficking, the FARC found a way to finance its war and the peace agreement collapsed. The FARC brought terror to the countryside, killing peasants and rural workers who would not accept their rule. A rivalry between the drug traffickers and the FARC gave rise to a new surge of violence. The paramilitaries emerged as an alliance between the political far right—in particular the landlords—and the drug traffickers, striving to confront the FARC and expel them from their regions. President Andres Pastrana, a member of the Conservative Party, had won the elections on a platform offering a new peace process with the FARC.
Oxígeno Verde’s aim was to establish dialogue simultaneously with everyone involved in the conflict, while maintaining strong military pressure to ensure that the illegal factions had an incentive to sit at the negotiating table. To better convey our message at the press conference, I had sat in the middle of a long table between life-size cardboard cutouts of Manuel Marulanda, the supreme leader of the FARC (which was now the oldest communist guerrilla group in South America); Carlos Castaño, his fiercest adversary, the head of the paramilitaries; and the generals of the Colombian army that fought both.
A few weeks earlier, on February 14, a televised meeting had taken place at San Vicente del Caguán between all the presidential candidates and members of the FARC secretariat. That meeting had been organized by the outgoing government, and we’d been allowed to use the presidential plane for the round-trip. The government was seeking support for its peace process with the FARC. It had been the object of increasingly harsh criticism for handing over to the FARC the control of a demilitarized zone of sixteen thousand square miles, more or less the size of Switzerland, in exchange for a guarantee that they would turn up at the negotiating table. San Vicente del Caguán was located at the heart of this zone.
We had gathered around a table, members of the FARC on one side and the candidates and government officials on the other. The meeting turned into an indictment of the guerrilla movement, which was accused of stalling the negotiations.
When it was my turn to take the floor, I asked the FARC representatives to prove they were serious about peace. The country had just witnessed with horror the death of Andres Felipe Pérez, a twelve-year-old boy in the final stages of terminal cancer, who had begged the FARC to allow him to talk to his father through a radio link-up before he died. His father, a soldier in the Colombian army, had been held hostage by the FARC for several years. The FARC had refused. I expressed the bitterness we all felt over this and our utter dismay at the lack of humanity from a group that claimed to be defending human rights. I concluded my speech with a declaration that peace in Colombia had to begin with the release of all the hostages—more than a thousand—being held by the FARC.
The following week, the FARC hijacked an airliner in the south and captured the region’s most important senator, Jorge Eduardo Gechem. President Pastrana abruptly ended the peace process. In a televised address, he announced that within forty-eight hours the Colombian army would regain control of the demilitarized zone and evict the FARC.
In the ensuing hours, the government announced that the FARC had left the San Vicente region and that everything had returned to normal. As proof, the press reported that President Pastrana would travel to San Vicente the following day, precisely when we had planned to go.
The telephones at our headquarters were ringing off the hook. If the president was going to San Vicente, then surely we would be going, too! My campaign made contact with the president’s office to ask if we could fly with the president’s retinue, but the request was refused. After many long hours of discussion, it appeared that we could fly to Florencia—a city 230 miles south of Bogotá—and complete the rest of the journey by car. San Vicente’s airport was under military control and closed to civilian flights. The security services confirmed we would have a solid escort: Two armored cars would meet us when we disembarked from the aircraft, and motorcycles would be at the head and rear of the convoy.
I spoke on the telephone with the mayor of San Vicente. He, too, was very insistent that I come. Military helicopters had been flying over the village all night long, and the population was afraid. People feared reprisals, as much from the paramilitaries as from the guerrillas, since the village of San Vicente had supported the peace process.
The mayor was counting on the media exposure I would get as a presidential candidate to highlight the risks being run by his people. My presence would help shield them from violence. In a final effort to convince me, he said that the bishop of San Vicente had taken the road that morning and reached his destination without a problem. The trip was not dangerous.
So I agreed to go to San Vicente, provided that security measures on the ground be confirmed before our departure, scheduled for five o’clock the following morning.
That night, when I left our HQ, I was exhausted. But my evening was only just beginning. I had a meeting with friends of the Colombian left who were seriously committed to a peace settlement. In the face of the renewed hostilities, our goal was to draft a joint strategy. I left the meeting to attend a dinner at the home of a campaign worker who had gathered together the hard-core members of the group. We all felt the need to be together, to discuss the recent turn of events.
Midway through the evening, I received a call from one of the newcomers to my campaign, Clara. She was on the team to replace the administrator who had recently left. She wanted to join us on the trip to San Vicente. I told her that she didn’t need to, there was plenty to be done during the days ahead, and I repeated to her a number of times that she could better spend the weekend preparing for what was coming up. She insisted. As a new member of the campaign, she wanted to become more involved and get to know our San Vicente team. She was adamant. So we agreed that I would pick her up in the car at dawn.