Authors: Ingrid Betancourt
Then, as if to tell me what he was really thinking, he added, “There are soldiers everywhere. It’s almost certainly less dangerous than when we crossed the Magdalena! Call me as soon as you get to San Vicente. I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that the return goes more smoothly.”
My team had plastered the vehicle with improvised signs spelling out my name and the word “Peace.” We were about to leave when the man from the security division who had secured the pickup for us rushed back over, visibly agitated. He was brandishing a set of papers and panting as he said, “You can’t leave until you have signed a discharge form! It’s a government vehicle, you understand, and if you have an accident, you’ll have to cover the costs!”
I closed my eyes. I felt as if I were in a slapstick Mexican movie. Clearly they wanted to do their utmost to delay our departure. I smiled, mustering some patience. “Where do I sign?”
Clara took the form. “I’ll take care of it,” she said kindly. “Hopefully, my years in law will serve some purpose!”
I laughed and let her handle things. It was already noon. The heat was becoming suffocating, and we couldn’t wait any longer.
We hit the road, the air-conditioning on full blast. Just the prospect of spending two hours in this small metal oven breathing artificial air was excruciating.
“There’s a military checkpoint at the exit to Florencia. It’s purely routine,” I said.
I had made this journey many times. The military cordon was always a rather tense moment. We reached it very quickly. Cars were lined up one behind the other, waiting patiently. Everyone would be searched. We pulled over, parked the truck, and got out.
At that moment my cell phone rang. I rummaged in my bag to retrieve it. It was Mom. I was astonished that her call had gotten through to me. Usually there was no network once you left Florencia. I brought her up to date with all the details of our journey. “My escort received an order not to accompany me. It seems it came from the president himself. I still have to go, though. I gave my word. I wish I were with Papa. Tell him I send my love.”
Mom had been a senator and knew well how demanding an electoral campaign could be. “Don’t worry, darling, I’ll tell him. And I’ll be with you every second. Every step of the way, I’ll be with you. Be careful.”
While I was talking to Mom, the soldiers had taken our vehicle and were meticulously examining the carpets, the glove compartment, and our bags. When I hung up, I refrained from calling Papa. Instead I walked over to the officer who was standing a short distance from all the activity and who seemed to be in charge of operations, to inquire about the traffic situation.
“Everything is normal. Up to now we haven’t had any problems.”
“What is your opinion?”
“I have no opinion to give you, madam.”
“Very well. Thank you anyway.”
We took to the road behind a bus and alongside a small motorcycle being ridden at top speed by a young woman, her arms bare, her hair flowing in the wind, her eyes glued to the asphalt. She was in full throttle but having a hard time keeping up with us; she looked like she wanted to race us. The scene was rather comical, and we laughed. But the noise of her engine was unbearable. We picked up a little more speed to get ahead of her and arrive more quickly at the fuel station at Montañitas, an unavoidable stop-off point. Every time I’d been along this road, I would stop there to fill up with gas, get a drink of cold water, and chat with the owner.
As usual, she was at her post. I greeted her, happy to see a friendly face.
“I’m so relieved they’ve gone!” she confessed. “Those guerrillas moved into the region as if it belonged to them. They gave me a lot of problems. Now the army has cleared the zone. They have done a good job.”
“What about the control posts the guerrillas set up along the road? Are they still there?”
“No, no. The road is completely clear. I am the first to know, because any car that is forced to return stops here to give the alert.”
I got back into the car, feeling satisfied, and shared with my companions what the owner had to say, before confiding bitterly, “I’m convinced they don’t want us to go to San Vicente. Too bad. We’ll get there late, but we’ll get there all the same.”
We headed off, and fifteen minutes later we noticed some people up ahead, sitting in the middle of the road. When we got closer, we saw that a bridge was being repaired. On the previous trip, we’d had exactly the same problem on the way back from San Vicente. That was during the rainy season; the river had burst its banks, and the force of the water had weakened the bridge’s structure. Then, as now, we’d had to bypass the bridge and drive through the river. Today the water was no more than a trickle, and it would mean just a small detour from our route. Two people stood up to show us which way to go. We veered left and drove down the embankment.
In front of us, a Red Cross vehicle was heading down toward the water on the same course we were about to take. Once it reached the top of the opposite bank to rejoin the road, it disappeared from view. We followed suit.
As soon as we crested the embankment, I saw them. They were dressed in military garb, rifles slung across their shoulders, and they had gathered around the Red Cross vehicle. Instinctively I looked down at their shoes. They were black boots, the sort often worn by peasants in the swamps. I’d been taught how to identify boots. If they were leather, it was the army; if they were rubber, it was the FARC. These were rubber.
One of the guerrillas, carrying an AK 47, noticed our arrival and jogged over.
“Turn around!” he ordered. “The road is closed.”
Our impromptu driver looked at me, not knowing what to do. I hesitated for a moment, two seconds too many that would prove fatal. I’d been stopped at FARC checkpoints before. You talked to the group commander, he radioed for authorization, and you were allowed to pass. But that was during the era of the “demilitarized zone,” when peace negotiations were taking place in San Vicente. Everything had changed in the last twenty-four hours. There was a tension in the air I had never experienced before.
“Turn around, quickly!” I ordered Adair. It was not an easy maneuver. We were stuck between the Red Cross vehicle and the embankment. He began to make the turn; the pressure on him was intense.
“Quick, quick!” I shouted. I had already spotted the gun barrels trained in our direction. The guerrillas’ leader issued a command and yelled to us from a distance. One of his men came running over, looking menacing. We had completed three-quarters of the maneuver when he caught up with us and put his hand on the door, motioning at Adair to lower the window.
“Stop right there! The commander wants to talk to you. Don’t make any fast moves.”
I had not reacted fast enough. We should have turned around and retraced our path without hesitating. I was angry with myself. I looked behind me. My companions were white with fear.
“Don’t worry,” I told them, to force myself to believe. “Everything will be all right.”
The commander put his head through the driver’s window and looked intently at each of us, one at a time. He stopped when he got to me and asked, “Are you Ingrid Betancourt?”
“Yes, I am.”
It was hard to deny it with my name emblazoned all over the car.
“Good. Follow me. Park the car on the side of the road. You’ll have to pass between the two buses.”
He kept hold of the door, forcing us to drive slowly. It was then that I noticed a strong smell of gasoline. A man with a yellow drum in his hand was splashing the contents over the two buses. I heard the sound of an engine and turned around. The young girl on the motorcycle had, like us, stumbled into the trap. One of the guerrillas made her get down from her bike and took it from her, signaling for her to leave. She stood there, arms dangling, not knowing what to do. Her motorcycle was also doused with gasoline. She understood and hurried away toward the bridge.
A heavyset man with copper-colored skin and a large black mustache, sweating profusely, was pacing up and down across the road, nervously fanning himself with a red handkerchief and wringing his hands until his knuckles were white. His features were distorted in anguish. He had to be the driver of the bus.
After passing between the two buses, we momentarily lost sight of the Red Cross vehicle’s passengers, who were still held on the shoulder of the road, a gun trained on them. They did not take their eyes off us.
The commander stopped our truck after a few yards. On his order, the man who had doused the girl’s motorcycle with gasoline left it at the base of the bus and ran toward us. Just as he was crossing the verge about ten yards away, an explosion made us all jump with fright. I saw the man hurled into the air and fall to the ground in a crumpled heap. He lay in a huge pool of blood, his shocked gaze locked on mine as he stared at me, bewildered, not understanding what had just happened to him.
The commander was shouting, yelling abuse and cursing at the top of his voice. At that moment the wounded man began screaming in horror as he reached behind him and picked up his boot—containing the bloody flesh and exposed bone of a piece of leg that no longer belonged to him.
“I’m going to die, I’m going to die!” he howled. The commander ordered his men to place him on the open bed of our pickup. The man was covered in blood that had spurted in every direction. Strips of dripping flesh had been blasted all over, splattering the body of our vehicle and the windshield. Bits were stuck to people’s clothes, their hair, their faces. The smell of burned flesh, combined with the smell of blood and gasoline, was nauseating.
I heard myself say, “We can drive him to the hospital. We can help you!”
I was talking to the group leader in the same way I might have addressed a road-accident victim.
“You will go where I tell you to go,” he said.
Then, turning back, he ordered the wounded man to shut up, which he did at once, whimpering softly like a dog caught between pain and fear. The commander appeared satisfied.
“Go ahead,” he ordered our driver. “Keep it steady, but make it quick!”
Without hesitating, Adair pulled away as the last members of the group were jumping onto the bed of the truck. One pushed my friends onto the rear bench with the enormous barrel of his rifle and sat inside the vehicle, placing the rifle upright between his legs. He apologized for the inconvenience and smiled as he looked straight ahead. They were all wedged against one another, elbow to elbow, trying to avoid contact with the latest arrival.
To the journalist accompanying us, I said in French, “Don’t worry. I’m the one they want. Nothing is going to happen to you.”
He nodded, not at all reassured. Beads of sweat were forming on his brow. As I looked through the rear window, I watched a terrifying scene unfolding on the bed of the truck. The wounded man was crying as he held the stump of his leg in both hands. His comrades had tried to make some semblance of a tourniquet with one of their shirts, but the blood kept flowing, seeping up through the already soaked fabric. The car was jerking every two seconds, making it virtually impossible to apply a new tourniquet. The commander tapped the side of the vehicle and shouted something incomprehensible, and the vehicle slowed down. The wounded man’s head was lolling back; he had purple shadows under his eyes and was already half unconscious.
We drove along a small, bumpy, dusty road for twenty minutes in the diabolical heat before the leader gave the order to halt, just ahead of a bend that curved around a promontory.
A group of young people in uniform appeared from all sides. There were women, their hair braided and pulled into buns, smiling broadly, strangers to the drama, all teenagers. Several helped carry the wounded man from the truck toward a semisecluded area where we could just make out the roof of a house.
“It’s our hospital,” the youth sitting with us in the cab declared proudly. “He’ll pull through. We’re used to this.”
We had been there less than a minute when the leader ordered us to leave. Other armed men jumped onto the bed in the back, standing up in spite of the jolts and speed of the vehicle.
After ten minutes the vehicle stopped again. One of the recent arrivals jumped out and opened the doors. “All of you, out! Quickly!” He pointed his gun at us and grabbed me by the arm. “Give me your cell phone. Show me what you’ve got in there!” He searched my bag and pushed me forward, pressing the barrel of his gun into my back.
From the beginning I had held on to the hope that they were taking us to a place where they would care for the wounded man and that we would then be permitted to turn around and leave.
Now I had to face what was happening to me. I had just been taken hostage.
“EL MOCHO” CESAR
I had shaken the hands of Marulanda, Mono Jojoy, Raúl Reyes, and Joaquín Gómez—the last time being just two weeks earlier—and this led me to believe we had established a dialogue, protecting me from their terrorist actions. We had discussed politics for hours, we had shared a meal. How could these affable individuals be the same men who had ordered our abduction?
And yet their subordinates were threatening to kill me as they forced me to follow them. I tried to retrieve my travel bag from the vehicle, but the person shoving me with his gun yelled at me not to touch it. He ordered hysterically that I be separated from the others, and I saw my companions in misfortune line up pitifully on the other side of the road, each held at close range by an armed man.
I prayed with all my strength that nothing would happen to them, already accepting the fate I believed to be mine. My mind was operating in a thick fog, and I registered sounds and movements only after they happened. It seemed to me this was a déjà vu. Or maybe I had just imagined it. I remembered a photo in the newspaper. In it, a car was parked beside this very road, or perhaps a road just like it, the way ours had been. Corpses were lying facedown, scattered around the vehicle with its doors still open. The woman who had been shot along with her escorts was the mother of a member of Congress. When looking at the photo, I had imagined everything—her terror at the immediacy of death, her resignation to the inevitable, and then the end of life, the gunshot, the nothing-ness. Now I understood why it had obsessed me. It was a mirror of what awaited me, a reflection of my future. I thought of all the people I loved, and I thought it was so stupid to die like this.
I was in a bubble, curled up within myself. So I did not hear the engine, and when he pulled up beside me in his huge, latest-model Toyota pickup truck and lowered the automatic window to speak to me, I was unable to look at his face or understand his words.
Ingrid. . . .
Ingrid. . . . Ingrid!”
I snapped out of my torpor.
“Get in!” he ordered. I landed in the front seat, next to this man who was smiling at me, taking my hand as he would a child’s.
“Don’t worry. You’re safe with me.”
“Yes, Commander,” I answered without thinking.
It was Cesar, “El Mocho” Cesar, leader of the FARC’s fifteenth front. There was no mistaking it. He was definitely the commander. He seemed delighted that I had guessed as much.
He looked around. “Who are these people?”
“That’s my assistant.”
“And are those your body guards?”
“Not at all. They’re working with me on the campaign. One of them is in charge of logistics. He arranges our trips. The other is a cameraman we hired. The oldest one is a foreign journalist, a photographer from France.”
“Nothing is going to happen to you. But them . . . I need to verify their identity.”
I blanched, only too aware of what he meant.
“Please, believe me, none of them are security agents. . . .”
He gave me a cold look, lasting no more than a second; then, imperceptibly, his attitude softened. “Do you have everything you need?”
“No, they wouldn’t let me take my bag.”
He put his head out of the window and gave some orders. I understood what they meant more from the gestures that accompanied them than from the words themselves. I was trembling from head to toe. I saw that Clara had been separated from the group and ordered to get into the rear of the truck. A man ran to fetch my bag and quickly slid it between my legs before jumping onto the bed of the truck, just as Commander Cesar was putting it into reverse. I turned around. Clara was now sitting on one of the two benches that had been installed on the bed, wedged between a dozen armed men and women whom I had not noticed earlier. Our eyes met. She gave me a faint smile.
I turned back in time to see the rest of my friends being pushed roughly inside the vehicle that until now had been ours, with a guerrilla behind the wheel.
“Does the A/C bother you?” Cesar asked, his tone courteous.
“No, thank you, it’s fine like that.” He was a small, dark man, his skin burned by the sun. He had to be in his fifties, with a prominent belly betraying what must once have been an athletic body. I noticed that he was missing a finger.
He followed my inspection of his person with amusement and said, “They call me ‘El Mocho’
for obvious reasons!” He displayed his stump, adding, “A small gift from the military.”
I said nothing.
“Do I scare you?”
“No, why would you scare me? You are actually very polite.”
He smiled broadly, delighted by my response.
“The commanders asked me to say hello to you. You’ll see, the FARC is going to treat you very well.”
I looked away.
“Do you like music? What sort do you like?
salsa? Open the glove box. There’s everything you want in there. Go on! Pick something!”
The conversation was completely surreal. But I acknowledged the effort he was making to put me at ease, so I played along. Dusty CDs had been tossed in haphazardly. I didn’t know any of the artists and had difficulty reading what remained of their names on the labels of the obviously pirated discs. I rejected them one by one and noticed Cesar’s impatience at my lack of enthusiasm.
“Take that blue one. Yes, that one. I’m going to let you listen to the music we make. This is a pure FARC product. The songwriter and the singer are guerrillas!” He wagged his index finger to emphasize the fact. “We recorded them in our own studios. Listen to this!”
It was grating, ear-shattering music. The car’s sound system was ultramodern, with fluorescent lights shooting in all directions like the dashboard of a spaceship.
Worthy of a drug trafficker!
I couldn’t help thinking. A second later I felt bad when I saw the man’s childlike pride. He fiddled with the dials with the dexterity of an airline pilot, while somehow controlling the wheel, along that hellish road.
We passed through a village. I was dumbfounded. How could he drive around so nonchalantly with me, his hostage, in front of everyone?
Once again Cesar read my thoughts.
“I’m the king here! This village belongs to me. It’s Unión-Penilla. Everyone loves me here.” As if to prove the point, he rolled down the window and waved to passersby. Along the village’s main road, a shopping street by all appearances, people returned the gesture, as they might greet the mayor.
“Being the king of a village is not good for a revolutionary!” I remarked.
He looked at me in surprise. Then he burst out laughing. “I have been wanting to meet you. I saw you on TV. You’re prettier on TV.”
It was my turn to laugh. “Thank you, that’s very kind. You make me feel a lot better.”
“You’re starting a new life with us. You must be prepared. I’ll do my best to make things easier, but it’s going to be hard for you.”
He was no longer laughing. He was calculating, planning, making decisions. Inside that head, vital things were being formulated for me, things I could neither anticipate nor assess.
“I have a favor to ask you,” I said. “My father is ill. I don’t want him to learn of my abduction on the news. I want to call him.”
He looked at me long and hard. Then, as if carefully weighing his words, he replied, “I cannot allow you to call him. They could locate us, and that would place you in danger. But I will allow you to write to him. I’ll fax it. He’ll get your letter by the end of the day.”
More than three hours had passed since we’d driven through Unión-Penilla. I desperately needed to relieve myself. Cesar assured me that we would be arriving in a few minutes, but minutes turned into an hour, and we were still surrounded only by empty fields.
Suddenly, after we’d come around a bend, I saw six small wooden huts lined up in threes on either side of the road. They all looked the same, like shoe boxes—no windows, rusted tin roofs, all covered in a veneer of dust that turned what must once have been brightly painted walls into a uniform shade of gray.
Cesar braked sharply in front of one of them. The door was wide open, and you could see through to the end of the back garden. It was a small house, modest but clean, dark and no doubt cool.
He pushed me inside, but I refused to take another step until I knew that Clara was right behind me. She got out of the vehicle and took my hand to make sure we would not be separated.
“Don’t worry. You’ll stay together.” Cesar indicated the toilets at the end of the garden. “Go ahead. A girl will show you the way.”
The garden was full of flowers of every color. I thought then that if our place of imprisonment was to be this little house, I could resign myself to my misfortune.
A small shed with a wooden door appeared to be the toilet. I didn’t see the young girl until a few seconds later. She could not have been more than about fifteen, and I was struck by her beauty. Dressed in camouflage, gun held firmly across her chest, she stood astride, swaying her hips coquettishly. Her pretty face, her flaxen hair coiled on her head, like a little bird’s nest, and the femininity of her earrings contrasted with the severity of her uniform. Almost shyly she greeted me with a beautiful smile.
Inside the shed the smell was revolting. There was no toilet paper. The drone of large green flies hovering over the putrid hole made the experience all the more vile. Once outside, I nearly fainted.
Cesar was waiting in the house with a cold drink for us and two sheets of paper that he laid on a small table in the living room. He explained that we could use the paper to write a message to our families.
I spent a long time thinking about the words I would choose in writing to Papa. I told him that I had just been taken hostage but that I was being treated well and that I was not alone because Clara was with me. I described the conditions under which we had been captured, how distressed I was to see one of the guerrillas lose his leg by stepping on an antipersonnel mine they had planted, and finally I said I hated the war.
I wanted him to sense through my words that I was not afraid. And I wanted to prolong our last conversation, to ask him to wait for me.
Cesar returned, telling us we could take as long as we needed but that we were not to give any indication of our location or of the time, nor should we mention any names, because if we did, he would not be able to send our letters.
Of course he was going to read my letter. He could even censor it! He had left again, but I still felt his breath on my neck as if he were peering over my shoulder. Never mind. I wrote what I had planned to write, taking care not to let my tears fall onto the paper. All I could see was darkness. My lucky star had just vanished.
Cesar left but soon returned; a small, barrel-shaped man with a large, bushy mustache and greasy hair was with him. When he saw us, he looked panic-stricken, as if he had set eyes on the devil. He interlaced his fingers nervously and was clearly waiting for instructions from his leader.
“This is Doctora Ingrid,” said Cesar.
The newcomer extended an enormous hand covered in soot, which he quickly tried to wipe on his jeans and holey T-shirt.
Cesar continued in a measured voice, articulating every word, as if to make sure he would be properly understood and not have to repeat himself.
“Go and buy some clothes: pants, jeans, something chic, and short-sleeved shirts, pretty ones, for women, do you understand?”
The man nodded quickly, his eyes rooted to the floor in extreme concentration.
“Get some underwear, too. Make sure it’s feminine. The best quality.”
The man’s head moved up and down, as if on a spring, and he held his breath.
“And rubber boots. Get the good ones. The Venus. Not the Colombian-made ones. And also get me a good mattress, double thickness, and a mosquito net. But make sure they’re decent. I don’t want the useless stuff you dug up last time! Send everything straight to Sonia’s. I’m counting on you. I want quality, do you understand?”
The little man took his leave, backing out of the room before pivoting on the step and disappearing.
“If you’re ready, we’ll get going right away.”
It was the end of the day. The heat became tolerable as we bumped along a wretched, dusty track pitted with craters full of stagnant mud. Large, centuries-old trees blocked the horizon, and the sky winding above the road was bloodred. Now Clara and I were in the front cabin. The sound system had finally been switched off, and our silence was invaded by the cheeping of millions of invisible birds that burst into the sky in small black clouds as we passed by, only to turn back almost immediately and resume their positions in the cover of the foliage. I tried to lean my head out the window to watch the silhouettes of these magical, free birds above the treetops. If I had been with Papa, he would have wanted to gaze at them just as I was doing. This marvelous spectacle was painful—the happiness of these birds was hurting me, and so was their freedom.
“You’ll have to get used to eating everything,” Cesar remarked. “The only meat here is monkey!”
“I’m a vegetarian,” I retorted. It wasn’t true, but I felt the need to come up with a witty remark. “You have to get me salad, fruit, and vegetables. With all this greenery, I don’t suppose that’ll be a problem.”
Cesar remained silent. He seemed, however, to be enjoying my conversation. I pushed it a bit further.
“And if you really want to make me happy, get me some cheese!”
Ten minutes later he stopped the truck in the middle of nowhere. The guerrillas who were in the rear of the vehicle got out to stretch their legs and piss matter-of-factly in front of everyone. Cesar also got out and issued instructions, then headed off with two of the guerrillas toward a small house I hadn’t noticed initially, hidden between the trees. He came back smiling, a plastic bag in each hand; the other two men were just behind him, carrying a case of beer.