Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"Even Silence has an end – my six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle" book by Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid Betancourt, while campaigning as a candidate in the Presidential election of Colombia was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas in February 2002. She spent a harrowing six years in captivity in the jungles from 2002 to 2008. The guerrillas humiliated her with cruelty and and diminished her dignity. Ingrid chronicles her traumatic ordeal of existence and survival, in this book published in 2010.

Ingrid came from a rich political and diplomatic family. Her mother was a senator and father a minister in the government and was also ambassador. She held a French passport by virtue of her first marriage to a French man. Ingrid who was brought up in a life of comforts and luxuries, was made to beg for food, mattress, and toilet facility from the illiterate FARC guerrillas who revelled at her misery. Initially she was overtaken by shock and disbelief. Her hope turned into delusions and later depression, as the months and years went by. She gave up all hope and started believing in miracles and prayers. She lost her bearings and had an identity crisis.

Ingrid, the sophisticated and cosmopolitan intellectual, had to endure insults and abuses of the guerrillas who called her as a 'puta' (whore) and mocked her calling as doctora. They denied her privacy by forcing her to take bath and use the toilets publicly. She had to run for her life with the guerrillas whenever the Colombian army attacked Farc camps where she was held. 

She was tormented not only by the captors but also faced petty jealousies and mean acts of her fellow prisoners whose personalities were also perverted by the captivity and by the basic instinct for survival at any cost. She had to fight for her ration of food and other basic necessities with other hostages. The FARC commanders encouraged fighting and bickering among the prisoners as part of their divide and rule game. 

She tried to escape four times. Each time, she was caught and punished severely. She was put in chains and humiliated publicly. 

She describes in some detail the story two of her companions; the young Clara , her campaign assistant who was also captured with her and Lucho another political prisoner. The relations between Clara and Ingrid soured in the wretchedness of their captivity. Clara became pregnant probably by one of the guerrilla commanders. She gave birth to a boy who was taken away by FARC to bring him up as another guerrilla. Ingrid became close to Lucho another political prisoner who was the only other person with whom she could have meaningful conversations. But he suffered from diabetes without insulin supplies and memory lapses from time to time and she had to take care of him.

After the initial sufferings, Ingrid had reconciled herself to the fate and tried to make the best out of the misery. She opened her eyes to discover the birds, plants and flowers of the jungle as well as the dangerous wild insects, animals and snakes. She relearned to laugh and enjoy the small mercies of life and of her captors. She started playing cards with others, teaching French to other prisoners and guerrillas and table manners to some FARC soldiers. She made friendship with some guerrillas and tried to understand and empathize with those who had joined FARC due to poverty or suffering in the hands of the Colombian army, paramilitaries and land owners. She even advised her captors on their love lives. 
The book gives a glimpse of FARC, which remains as the single largest undefeated guerrilla force in Latin America. It gives insights of the lives, personalities and world view of the FARC commanders and soldiers.

It is a pity that after undergoing such suffering, Ingrid became controversial and unpopular when she sought multimillion dollar compensation from the Colombian government  as a victim of terrorism. Faced with popular outcry, she withdrew her claim later. She has now moved out of Colombia and shifted to US and France.

The experience of Ingrid is like one of the 'magical realism' stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the famous Colombian writer. The only difference is that in the case of Ingrid, her suffering was real and there was no magic during her six years of captivity.

But Colombia has become magical. The country which was a hostage to FARC terrorism for the last five decades has also been liberated..almost. During their hey days, FARC controlled a significant part of the territory of the country and terrorized the population with kidnappings and violence. The government has decisively broken the back of FARC and is currently holding peace negotiations which have made considerable progress. FARC is on the retreat and the government is reclaiming the areas earlier occupied by FARC and using the new areas for agriculture and exploration of oil and minerals. The economy is booming with growth of industry, exports, agriculture and mineral and oil production. The country has become safer and more peaceful. There is increasing number of foreign tourists who visit the country trusting the advertisement ' the only risk of visiting Colombia is... wanting to stay'

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