The World’s Most Famous Female Hostage

October 7, 2010
Ingrid Betancourt is perhaps the world's most famous hostage. Photo by Tess Steinkolk

Ingrid Betancourt is perhaps the world's most famous hostage. (Photo: Tess Steinkolk.)

Ingrid Betancourt aspired to become Colombia’s first female president; instead, she became the world’s most famous female hostage.

While campaigning for the Colombian presidency in 2002, Betancourt was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — Colombia’s oldest leftist insurgency. She was held captive until 2008, when the Colombian military rescued her in a bold operation.

She recounted her experience in the recently published book Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, published worldwide in September 2010.

Women, War & Peace’s Jennifer Janisch spoke to Betancourt about who the FARC really are and the many roles women play in Colombia’s long-running internal conflict.

Listen to an interview with Ingrid Betancourt


WWP: You obviously spent a great deal of time with the FARC, and came to know many of the individuals in their ranks as well. Who are the men and women who make up the FARC today?

Betancourt: Well they’re all kind of individuals. Mostly peasants for the majority the troops, the basic guerrillero. They come from the coca activity [areas] so they are outsiders and they have been chased by the institutions in Colombia. It’s one of the only products that really can make a living off of, so for these peasants, sometimes I feel that there was really no option.

For them getting into the guerrillas was an upgrade because they became armed men and women, and for that they would be respected. Of course feared, but respected. But today the FARC is not a very romantic, leftist revolutionary organization. It’s a military organization that is serving one main purpose, which is drug trafficking.

WWP: What was your life in captivity like?

Betancourt: Well it was very difficult life, it was six years and a half of not knowing what my future would be, if I was going to be killed or if I was going to be held captive for many more years. We had rough moments. Especially after escaping we were punished in very harsh ways. Living in a jungle is not something easy, it’s not something that you just adapt yourself to. And I think that in my case, I didn’t want to adapt. They would call us “cargo” so we were kind of you know a bargaining chip for them, and that is something I didn’t want to accept. So it was hard.

WWP: You write in the beginning of your book about your attempt to escape. It was not the first time, I might add, but the fourth time you tried to break free from captivity. And of course you were recaptured, and it was actually a female FARC soldier who found you. Can you tell us about your experience with her?

Betancourt: At that precise moment I had this incredible dialogue with her because she found me and had to bring me back to the camp. But then she said to me “I understand what you’re doing. I wish I just could do something better. Sometimes I have thought to myself [of] escaping the way you have done, and I know it’s crazy because they will find you and they will punish you. But I have thought about that,” and I said “Why don’t you escape with me? Why don’t we just escape together? You know this jungle — we could make it together.” And she said “No, no way because if they get us they will kill me. And I have a little baby that I also miss. Like you miss your children I miss mine. So I understand why you’re doing this but I have to take you back to the camp.”

And I understood that day that many of the guerrillas that were holding me captive were as captive as I was, and perhaps worse because I knew that one day I was going to get out of that situation, but they will never be able to get free.

WWP: It’s very interesting that nearly 50 percent of the FARC soldiers actually are women. Do you think most of them are there against their will or are staying there voluntarily?

Betancourt: Well I think it’s a mix of things. I think when they enter the FARC, they do it because they want. In those regions of Colombia where the FARC is operating, the life of a girl is very difficult because the work that is available for her is working as a peasant or working as prostitute.

In the FARC there is this speech that is given to them [saying] that they are equal to men. And sometimes in Colombia, especially in the rural areas, the society is very macho driven, and women are subject to violence and to exploitation and to bad treatment. So when they enter the FARC they believe they are going to be in the same position as a man and that they will be respected and they won’t be subject to violence.

While I was in captivity living with them, I didn’t think that was exactly right. I think they were used by the FARC because they were forced to give response to the sex demands of their companions. And the other thing that was very hard was the condition of women that were pregnant because they couldn’t have a child if they wanted, they had to ask permission to have the child. If it was denied, they had to abort. And if it was accepted they could have the baby for the first three months of its life but then afterwards she had to give the baby to militants and she wouldn’t see the baby again.

And that baby years after would would would be a guerrillero no matter what, I mean, that little boy or girl would grow up and his destiny was to be a FARC guerrillero.

WWP: Do you consider yourself a woman displaced by the war in Colombia?

Betancourt: No, that was my choice, it was my choice. When you’re displaced, you don’t have a choice. I’m not in Colombia just because I’m still very wounded, and I think I have the right to just take some time to heal. But that’s my decision.

WWP: Colombia has the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world. Can you explain that phenomenon for our listeners?

Betancourt: Behind the war in Colombia there is a dirty war that targets the land. It’s a way of getting control of the land and getting richer [through] this kind of expropriation of the peasants’ land through violence. So it comes to a point where the peasant families that live off their products of the land are confronted by saving their lives or staying in the land that they cherish and that they’re linked to.

And of course many just flee and they abandon the land and they give it up [and it ends up] in the hands of the of the warlords. They reach the cities where there is nothing to greet them, no organization to make the arrival to the city easier. So these are human beings that have lost everything that counts for them — all of their belongings, the roots, the family — who are subject to all kind of trauma from what they have seen. Normally before leaving, there family has been killed in front of them.

I’ve always had the sensation that we’ve not been so successful in giving a response to this huge social problem we have in Colombia.

WWP: What has the role of Colombian women been in fighting for peace in your country?

Betancourt: I think that women are peacemakers by genetics, because we are the ones who stay at home and because we are the ones who suffer with the aftermath of war. In Colombia women are a huge factor for reconciliation. I have seen many strong women advocating for negotiations. I remember when the paramilitary were active, there were woman close to the paramilitary asking for negotiations. I have seen women in the Congress advocating for negotiations and also in the leftist wings I have seen very, very radical women also asking and pleading for negotiations.

The thing is that war is the opposite of negotiation. It’s when you cannot negotiate, when you cannot talk, when you cannot reach agreements that then you have war. This is very important because in Colombia we need to have voices to reveal the truth of the war, because what I think today is the war is not an ideological war. [It’s] the greed of many people [who] have been making lots of money through the war. And that’s why I think it’s so difficult for Colombia to achieve peace, because it has become a business for too many people.