Sep 22, 2010 9:49 PM by Alison Haynes
NEW YORK (AP) - Of all the horror, pain, and degradation both
physical and mental that Ingrid Betancourt suffered during six and
a half years in the Colombian jungle, perhaps nothing felt more
dangerous to her than when her captors tried to erase her last bit
of identity: her name.
They wanted to call her by a number. And she refused, angering
her fellow hostages and probably putting all of them at risk.
"Ingrid Betancourt," she said when the time came to recite her
"For me it was like taking away my oxygen," Betancourt says
now, speaking in a highly emotional interview upon the release of
"Even Silence Has an End," her powerful, often agonizing memoir
of life in captivity.
"There are things you do because you have to. You don't always
calculate the consequences. And sometimes you do very stupid things
because of that." Eventually, though, the captors backed down.
Betancourt's book has already been called "a classic of
Colombian history and literature" by Hector Abad, one of the
country's most influential living writers. It is also bound to
propel Betancourt, a heroine in France and a more complex figure in
Colombia (she is a citizen of both), to bigger fame in the United
States and elsewhere - as is her appearance Wednesday on "The
Oprah Winfrey Show."
And it will raise the question of just where the former
Colombian senator and presidential candidate (she was a minor party
candidate when captured in February 2002) goes from here. Another
presidential run? A global campaign against kidnapping? More books?
"I don't want really to come back to politics but I can't say I
won't do it (later)," Betancourt says, sitting in the living room
of a friend's Manhattan home. At 48, the mother of two looks much
younger, and chic in a short skirt, high-heeled slingbacks
revealing purple-painted toes, and a string of pearls around the
neck that, in the jungle, was often encircled by chains.
"I am concerned about Colombia and compelled to react," she
says. "But I have to reconstruct my life. I am a human being. All
us survivors, we are wounded very deeply. We need to be able to
reconstruct relationships with others based on trust."
And, she says, she needs to find her own place to live. Though
she's been dividing her time between Paris, where her mother lives,
and New York, Betancourt says she plans to live somewhere else
entirely - and not in Colombia, at least for now.
Her story, is, by any measure, astonishing.
Betancourt was captured by FARC guerrillas as she attempted to
travel to San Vicente del Caguan, where then-President Andres
Pastrana had just ordered a rebel safe haven dismantled after
failed peace talks. As days grew into months, months into years,
she despaired of ever being freed. Several times, she tried to
escape into the jungle, risking death either from the elements or
from the captors who tracked her down. One escape involved making a
flotation device from a Styrofoam cooler.
As punishment, she was kept chained much of the time, often to a
tree. She often slept on plastic sheets on the ground. Going to the
bathroom meant asking permission to walk over to a horrid-smelling
hole in the earth and compete with huge swarms of insects to
Her book begins with the horrible retribution after the third
escape attempt, when she crawled out of the "cage" she and her
campaign aide and fellow hostage, Clara Rojas, shared.
"I started with that because it was the hardest moment," she
says. "I thought if I can write about this, I can write about
anything." She was chained and marched back, as if on a leash. And
yet she doesn't write what is generally assumed: that she was raped
She responds: "I don't like to write about everything. You
don't say certain things out of respect for the soul, for what you
are, for others too - my children, my mom, the readers - even the
After more than six years of living with the threat of death
hanging over her every day, Betancourt was rescued in a spectacular
way. Colombia's military infiltrated the FARC and duped the
guerrillas into allowing her and fellow hostages to depart on a
helicopter, thinking they were simply being moved.
Once aloft, the rebels accompanying the hostages were
overpowered and the captives were told they were free. A short
video taken by the rescuers shows Betancourt weeping with joy.
And yet, in a gesture that did little to win friends in
Colombia, she recently requested $6.8 million in damages for her
years in captivity. When word of her petition became public in
July, there was widespread outrage among Colombians who considered
her worse than ungrateful. Betancourt withdrew the request.
Her frustration with the fallout is palpable. She was, she says,
acting on behalf of all victims of terrorism who deserve protection
from the state.
"It has been very painful for me to see the reaction," she
says, her eyes welling with tears. "The Colombian government
presents this as if I were suing the soldiers who rescued me.
They're saying I want to make money off my abduction. I tell you
something: the amount of money that the lawyers came up with? It
could have been twice, three times that, I wouldn't have accepted
it to go through what I went through. So I think it's very unjust,
"They were like wolves after me, in the most cruel way."
Writing the book was clearly a painful experience. Betancourt
says it took 18 months. She would eat breakfast, then force herself
to write from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., with no break. She started with
a list of events that she didn't want to forget, and her memory,
she says, would often drift to unexpected places.
She didn't, of course, have notes to rely on. "We were frisked
all the time," she says. "So I would write during the day, but
then burn it." She was given two notebooks, she said, in the
entire six years. She had a pencil, but no sharpener, so she used a
And so, she says, the book "is not chronological, it is
emotional." But certain dates are seared in her brain. Like the
day when she discovered, from reading a scrap of newspaper wrapped
around a cabbage, that her beloved father, Gabriel Betancourt, had
died, a year after her capture. Before she left on the trip that
led to her capture, she had asked him - he was ill - to hold on, if
anything happened to her.
And of course there was the pain of separation from her mother,
Yolanda, who called into a radio station nearly every day to
broadcast messages to her, and from her two children, Lorenzo and
Melanie, who were 13 and 16 when she was abducted.
Mother and children enjoyed a joyful, tearful reunion at the
Bogota airport. But even when one has faced down violent, assault
rifle-toting captors, readjusting relationships with one's children
can still be a challenge.
"It was tough," Betancourt says, asked how the reconciliation
has gone. "There was lots of love. But we're human beings. We
carry our fragilities."
Betancourt still wrestles with perceptions among some in
Colombia that she was reckless in trying to reach San Vicente by
The government would not take her by helicopter. Then, it
withdrew her security detail bit by bit, her guards, her armored
cars, all to discourage her, she says.
"They said I wanted to get myself kidnapped. It is crazy!" she
says now. "I won't accept it. They are worried they could be held
responsible for my abduction. I am fed up with lies."
She's also saddened by the accounts of some fellow hostages -
notably, U.S. military contractor Keith Stansell - that she was
haughty in captivity, demanded extra privileges, even told FARC
rebels that he and two fellow Americans were CIA agents. In her
book, she paints Stansell as coarsely materialistic. She says now
she prefers to remember the wonderful moments of solidarity she had
with many fellow captives.
Betancourt has also had to deal with fallout from comments she's
made about Colombia - for example, that society there is "sick."
"Yes, I think we ARE sick," says this politician who made her
name by standing up to drug corruption in Colombia's congress in
the 1990s. "I include myself. We are passionate. We can go from
hate to love with no transition. I think this explains our
As for herself, Betancourt says she truly feels different now,
more than eight years after her capture.
"I think I changed character," she says. "I didn't think it
was possible. I'm a more patient person, for example. My
relationship with time is different."
One result, she says, is that she is learning to cook.
And she's allowing herself to eat things - sweet things, like
cake and ice cream - that she avoided before.
"I've learned something," says the slender Betancourt. "You
can eat those things and not get fat! I didn't know that before."