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She was held hostage for 6.5 years in jungle hell

“The jungle is hell. It’s always a battle against nature. The jungle is overwhelming. If you want to walk it is a battle. The vines, the trees, the roots, everything. You feel like you cannot breathe. It’s very tight. It’s secluding. It truly, in every sense of the word, became my prison.”

Ingrid Betancourt should know. Those words are hers and she spent almost 7 years as a political prisoner, held hostage in the darkest reaches of the Colombian jungle by rebels – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – and beaten, tortured, chained to a tree. It began a slow and deliberate asphyxiation of her character. Of her identity. But she wouldn’t let it.

Ms Betancourt was always going to be a tough character to break. She launched her presidential campaign in Colombia in 2002 at the age of 40, attacking the corruption and reliance on drug cartels that had infected the political system. She made an enemy of almost everybody. Nobody wins friends taking on the establishment. But it wasn’t the politics of a narcotics-fuelled campaign that almost crushed Ingrid, rather her abduction at the hands of those rebels in 2002.

The President, constitutionally required to provide protection to campaign candidates fairly and equally, withdrew a security detail from Ingrid’s campaign tour to the recently ‘demilitarised’ San Vicente de Calguan. She and her campaign manager Clara Rojas (37) decided to press ahead at short notice in a beaten up ute. They were ambushed.

Ingrid was 40. Her two children Melanie and Lorenzo were teenagers and her husband, Juan Carlos, had little inkling how their lives would change.

The Capture

“I really did think they might have made a mistake. I couldn’t get it into my head that they were taking hostage a presidential candidate. In the first few days I thought it was going to take a couple of weeks for somebody to negotiate my release and get me out of there,” Ingrid says.

“The switch happens, gets flicked, somewhere after the first year of captivity. It is a sort of psychological switch because after that point you get back to everything that has happened in that first year and you realise there is nothing happening, nothing expected, no negotiation.”

The Hostage Camp

There was no Stockholm Syndrome, Ingrid says. She didn’t then, and doesn’t now, believe in the cause of the rebels. But she knew that time spent with her captors was the only type of time there was.

“I tried to befriend the ones I could, to understand the ones I could and convince them that they could achieve nothing while not at the negotiating table. But the guards became nasty. They weren’t particularly well educated and they were alone out there in the jungle with just the hostages for company. They vacillated between bizarre turns of good nature and utter depravity. When I was kidnapped, they asked me if the air conditioning was too cold. In the camp, after about a year, I was given a radio. But then at one point I was chained by the neck to a tree for three days and nights, unable to even sit.”

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Ingrid’s campaign manager Clara Rojas offered up the most fascinating example of something approximating Stockholm Syndrome. Worried about her biological clock, she became pregnant to one of her captors (a guerilla fighter) and had the baby cut from her womb using a kitchen knife in the jungle. A doctor had been promised, but none arrived. There was anaesthetic. The baby was sent away to an orphanage and hospital due to a health problem and the fact he suffered a broken arm during birth. Clara was reunited with him upon her release almost two years later.

The Jungle

“We love nature but we don’t realise how much nature has become a foreigner to our lives; so strange, so alien. All those animals, you are prey for them. There might be wild boar, bears, anacondas and jaguars lurking around the shadows but it’s the tiny things you have to watch out for. The little bugs come by the millions, bees and red ants just for starters, and they attack. There was not one single day in 6.5 years that I was not attacked. I was always scratching myself. It unnerves you in a way that cannot possibly be described. If you were in a cloud of these things you would come out looking like a corn cob; stung on every possible surface. Sometimes I thought I could not cope.”

The Other Prisoners

At the time of Ingrid’s capture, there were an estimated 2000 prisoners of all nationalities held hostage by the FARC. Ingrid and Clara joined prisoners who had previously been abducted and were later joined by three American captives.

“Our relationships began degrading from the first day,” says Ingrid whose relationship with Clara was strained. “Clara and I lived for a year under the same mosquito net, in the same ‘bed’. It was very primitive. We were manipulated in every way by the FARC. Life became a primitive battle for food and space between prisoners. If the FARC became bored they would make us bicker to stimulate confrontation between prisoners. With some people you could overcome this awful bickering, but others became very aggressive. You have to remember there was nothing – nothing – else to do. Our interactions became the only thing we had. The only human thing we had.” Clara and Ingrid no longer speak.

The Hope and Despair

Ingrid reunites with her children.

“I never once lost the urge to get back to my children [teenagers when she was kidnapped]. It was my obsession, it was why I tried to escape so many times,” Ingrid says. She made it away from the camp 5 times and tried countless others. It’s worth remembering that this is in the oppressive jungle in the dead of night surrounded by all manner of things that can bite, maim or kill you. “I kept pictures of my children until the last year I was held hostage when the commander took them from me. He didn’t like me. He knew those photos were the only thing that anchored me to my kids Melanie and Lorenzo. When I was alone, in one of those rare moments of respite, I would look at those pictures. I also had one letter from my mother. I remember staring for hours at that letter. The way she wrote, the hand writing, the curls and flicks of the characters. It was emotionally charging, for me.”

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Just one month after she was captured, her father Gabriel died of respiratory trouble. Ingrid caught news of it on a contraband radio. “Those words crushed me into an abyss I never thought I would crawl from. I missed him so much in that moment and there was nothing I could do.”

Release

Ingrid Betancourt’s release from her long-time tormentors is perhaps one of the most incredible elements of this tale. She describes it not as a military operation (though it involved the Colombian military) but as a ‘confidence trick’. Spies infiltrated the ranks of the rebel FARC and managed to convince a sub-commander (who was in charge of the hostages) that they were being moved to a new location. The hostages, together with the real FARC and some Colombian military spies, marched to a helicopter landing point. The chopper was filled with Colombian military members posing as rebels in Che Guevera t-shirts. The hostages were loaded, the spies climbed aboard and two FARC members joined them. They were quickly subdued. Not a single shot was fired.

No blood.

“We were never told of the plot, but we were told the EU was coming to talk to us. But when we marched into the clearing I saw the helicopter was not filled with EU people. They had guns and they weren’t dressed right. I felt like it was a trick. A trap. It was very hard for me to get into that helicopter, I felt so hopeless.”

But she did. A member of the crew turned to Ingrid, three American hostages and 11 Colombian captives and uttered the words that Ingrid says ring as loudly today as they did then.

“We are the national army. You are free.”

The Reunion

The French President chartered a jetliner to bring Ingrid’s children to her in Colombia at the word of her release. They reunited on the tarmac for the first time in more than 6 years.

“It was a fairytale. During all those years I kept creating, in my brain, the image of my children growing up. I tried to picture how they were physically. During those years I would imagine them the most beautiful I could imagine them. But when I saw them they were much more beautiful than I could ever have dreamed. More than that; they had this light inside them, this aura. It was the most incredible gift. I was overwhelmed with this sensation that despite everything we had suffered, it turned into an incredible blessing because my children had grown into such incredible human beings.”

The reunion video is inspiring. No words needed:

Ingrid was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 upon her release, met with the Pope and international heads of state. She and her husband filed for divorce in 2009 and Ingrid today spends her time between New York and Paris, watching over her children.

Ingrid Betancourt spent 18 months writing a recount of her ordeal Even Silence Has an End and is arriving in Australia later this month for her Australian tour. Here are the details:

Ingrid will be appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival May 18 – 22, 2011

Storey Hall (Melbourne) on 25 May at 7.30 pm

Ingrid will also be delivering the annual Green Oration in Hobart on Thursday 26 May