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Betancourt Describes Captivity in Colombian Jungle

November 4, 2010 at 6:06 PM EST
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Margaret Warner talks to Ingrid Betancourt about her new memoir, "Even Silence Has an End," and her years as a hostage in the Colombian jungle.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a memoir about one of the world’s most dramatic political kidnappings. Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Ingrid Betancourt is now two years and many miles beyond the ordeal that stole more than six years of her life.

It was February 2002. And Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician and Colombian senator, was campaigning for president in a region controlled by Marxist guerrillas. On a road to a remote town, she and her aides were abducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

Betancourt became the most high-profile of thousands of FARC prisoners. They were concealed in the jungle for six-and-a-half years. Then, in July 2008, a daring helicopter rescue. Colombian army forces posing as aid workers freed her and 14 others without a shot being fired.

Betancourt was reunited with her family in Paris and showered with international acclaim and honors. Now she’s recounted the ordeal in a remarkable new book, “Even Silence Has an End.”

I spoke with her in New York earlier this week. Ingrid Betancourt, welcome. This is quite a tale you have told in this book. I’m wondering whether you think, when you were kidnapped, anything in your background had prepared you for this.

INGRID BETANCOURT, former FARC captive: Well, I think that, in life, everything prepares you to what will come.

And I don’t know how it works, but then, once you’re confronted with a difficulty, you grab on to what you have lived and your experience. And, for me, I think that what really helped me was the love I had in my childhood, with my children. This, you know, protection of love was the key for me.

MARGARET WARNER: You were subjected to unspeakably degrading conditions.

INGRID BETANCOURT: Well, it was getting back to prehistorical times: no light, no running water, no toilets, no facilities, no privacy, no doors to shut, and only rice and beans to eat every day for six-and-a-half years, muddy water to drink.

MARGARET WARNER: You kept trying to escape, and then you would be subjected to ever more-horrific forms of abuse. A lot of your fellow captives didn’t want to try to escape. Why did you?

INGRID BETANCOURT: For me, my obsession was to get back to my children, to my life. And it was also, I thought, a responsibility. My right was to be free. I was a free woman. Others wanted to adapt. I wanted to escape.

MARGARET WARNER: You seemed to adjust to this, if I can use that word, in phases.

INGRID BETANCOURT: I began realizing what was really at stake when I opened my eyes to the fact that everything I was living and the aggressions, the cruelty, the humiliation, was wasn’t affecting my body only, but especially my soul. And I couldn’t do anything to protect my body, but I had to do everything to protect my soul.

MARGARET WARNER: During one of these episodes, after you had been caught yet again, and you said you found yourself watching yourself. And you said, “measuring my strength and resistance, not according to my ability to fight back, but to submit to those blows.”

What did you mean by that?

INGRID BETANCOURT: I couldn’t do anything to prevent what was happening to me, but I could just cope. I could resist. I could resist in many ways. What I wanted to protect was my dignity. For example, we had roll calls where they would force us to respond like with numbers.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, in place of a name?

INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes, in place of a name. And I remember not accepting that, and saying, whenever they wanted me to do — to respond with a number, I would say my name.

I couldn’t let my spirit to play the game where I was going to accept being a number or an object, because then it could just affect me in the way — in the respect I had for myself.

MARGARET WARNER: You were considered a kind of prized hostage by the FARC, a kind of marquee prisoner. Did you feel that meant they wouldn’t kill you?

INGRID BETANCOURT: What it meant to me was, first, that I wasn’t going to be released. Once I discovered we had a price, that we were a trophy, then they didn’t want to negotiate anymore, because, by keeping us, they would have this media platform that they wanted.

And the second thing was how it affected my relationship with my fellow captives, because every time people would, you know, talk about our situation, they would refer to my name, and not to the others.

MARGARET WARNER: What was the psychology of the captives? You wrote, we behaved like bugs. You betrayed one another. Another time you said, we started to see our guards as the power figures and each other as rivals.

INGRID BETANCOURT: What happened is that we were confined in a very small space, where space was part of the rivalry between prisoners, and then a very small amount of food.

I think that, also, because the guerrillas were trying to load us with lies and saying things, gossip and things, so that we would feel that the other one was the enemy. And it came to a point where we would more easily forgive the captors, because we didn’t expect anything from them anyway. We knew they were going to be nasty.

But we had a hard time to forgive our brothers.

MARGARET WARNER: What was the psychology, as best you could understand, of the captors?

INGRID BETANCOURT: I think we all have, you know, human condition, light and shadow.

And this shadow is like a little monster that it’s locked inside of us and that we keep there. But, when you met — meet some conditions, that monster can be unleashed. I could see people that, in the first days, where they would come and meet us, they would encourage us to be who we are — were, and they would try to be nice.

But the weeks passing by, they would turn themselves into these horrible persons, abusing, being very cruel, and having a satisfaction in their cruelty, which was sadistic.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you think that’s in every man or woman?

INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes, I think so.

MARGARET WARNER: After your third escape attempt, and you’re being led back to the camp with a chain around your neck, as you wrote, I think, like a dog, you said, however: “I knew that, in a way, I had gained more than I had lost. I knew that I had the ability to free myself from hatred.”

INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes. It came slowly. It wasn’t something that I realized, like, very quick. But I had, like, the vision for a moment, and then it got stronger, that hatred was a prison. Hatred was a chain. Hatred was something that only harmed myself.

And I didn’t want to get out of the jungle like an old, bitter woman, full of thirst of revenge and of blood. And one rule I just put on myself was that, of course I will try to escape many times, but I will never kill to find my freedom. I didn’t want to be like them.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us, if you would, about the moment you realized you were free, and, if you might, read a couple of paragraphs from the end of the book.

INGRID BETANCOURT: It was a miraculous moment. We were supposed to be in the hands of the FARC. And one of the guys who had came in the group with the helicopter took his white cap off and threw it in the air and said: “We are the Colombian army. You are free.” That was very intense.

I’m going to now read the passage.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, please.

INGRID BETANCOURT: “A long, long and very painful cry came breaking through, like a burst of flames, wanting to reach to the skies, forcing me open, like a mother in childbirth.

“When I finished emptying my lungs, my eyes opened to another world. William was clinging to me, and I to him, suddenly, afraid and breathless, in front of this void of freedom opening up before us, as if we were about to take flight, our feet on the edge of the cliff.”

MARGARET WARNER: That void, was that frightening?

INGRID BETANCOURT: Yes, the impression that, just like this, our lives had changed, and that now we were facing this freedom. And it was too big, too intense, too marvelous.

And I always think that we were like those birds when they’re in a cage, and you open the door of the cage, and they look out, and they are just paralyzed. They don’t know what to do. And they know they have to get out, but they don’t move. That’s how we were.

MARGARET WARNER: Ingrid Betancourt, thank you.

INGRID BETANCOURT: Thank you.