Letters from the jungle

January 17, 2008

Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who has dual French-Colombian citizenship, is perhaps Colombia’s most well-known hostage. She was kidnapped along a motorway with Clara Rojas, her aide, six years ago while on the campaign trail. Her two children continue to campaign for her release.

Last October, Ingrid wrote a letter to her mother in Spanish. It’s a poignant reminder of the harrowing plight faced by hostages in guerrilla jungle camps. Here are some parts I translated, the Washington Post translates the whole letter. The letter reveals an overwhelming sense of despair and a woman on the verge of losing the will to live.

Her soul, she says, rains like the jungles of Colombia.
She survives by not allowing herself “the luxury” of believing that she can be free one day. She finds bitter-sweet solace from listening to the weekly messages that her mother and children send via a radio programme dedicated to Colombia’s kidnap victims.

She gives thanks to Chavez and Sarkozy, among others, for their efforts in trying to get her released. The original letter is published in La Semana magazine. There’s also a photo of Ingrid from a recent proof of life video tape that caused much soul-searching in Colombia.

“I’m tired mother, tired of suffering, I’ve been or have tried to be strong. These almost six years in captivity have shown me that I’m neither so resistant, so strong, nor so intelligent, like I once thought.

I’ve fought many battles here, I’ve tried to escape several times, and I’ve tried to keep up hope, keep my head above water. But mother, I’m almost giving up. I would like to think that one day I’ll get out of here but I realize that what happened to the other deputies (they were taken hostage by the Farc and killed) could happen to me at any moment. I think it would be a relief for everyone.

Mother, this is a difficult moment for me… I’m not well physically. I’ve haven’t started eating again. I don’t have an appetite. My hair is falling out in great quantities. I don’t feel like doing anything. And I think that not wanting to do anything is the only thing that is ok: not to want to do anything. Because here in the jungle the only answer is “NO”. So then it’s better not to want anything so that one can at least be free of desires.
Like I’ve said before, life here is no life. It’s a dismal waste of time.

I live, or rather I survive, in a hammock hung between two sticks, coverered by a mosquito net and a tent on top which serves as a roof, with this I can think that I’ve got a house. I’ve got a shelf where I put my stuff, that’s a backpack with clothes and the Bible, which is my only luxury. Everything is ready just in case we have to leave the camp on the run. Here nothing is your own, nothing lasts, uncertainty and precariousness are they only constants. At any moment, they (the guerrillas) can give an order to pack up and one sleeps in any hole, kept in any place, like any animal. Those moments are especially hard for me…

The marches are an ordeal because my stuff is very heavy and I can’t handle it. Sometimes the guerrillas carry my stuff to help with the load and they leave me with “the rubbish” which is what weighs the most. But all this is stressful, they lose my things or take them away from me, like the blue jeans that Mela gave me as a Christmas present, which I was wearing at the time when I got kidnapped. The only piece of clothing I was able to salvage was a jacket, which has been a blessing because the nights are freezing and I don’t know what else to put on top of me so as not to feel the cold. Before I used to enjoy going to bathe in the river.

As I’m the only woman in the group, I have to bathe practically dressed, in shorts, a bra, a shirt and boots…
I used to get into the habit of spending a couple of hours doing some exercise during the day. I invented an apparatus… made out of sticks, like a step machine… The advantage was I didn’t need much space do the exercises but sometimes the guerrillas make the camps so small that you’re left practically on top of another prisoner. But since they separated the groups of hostages, I haven’t been interested in or had the energy to do anything. I do some stretching because the stress makes my neck seize up and it hurts a lot and with the stretching exercises, the splits and other things, I can alleviate the tension in my neck a bit.
I try to keep quiet, and speak as little as possible to avoid problems.

The presence of a women in the midst of prisoners who have been held captive for 8 and 10 years is a problem. I hear bits of RFI and the BBC, I write only a bit .. On top of the searches, they (the guerrillas) take away what one loves the most. A letter that you once wrote to me .. after the last proof of life video clip in 2003, photos of Mela and Lon… Every day there is less of me… It’s important that you dedicate these words to those who are my light, my oxygen, my life. Those who allow me to keep me head above water and don’t let me drown in the oblivion, the nothingness and the desperation.

As I’ve told you before, for years I couldn’t think about the children because of the horrendous pain it caused me not being with them. Today, I can now listen to them and feel more happiness than pain. I seek them in my memories and I nourish myself with the images of them as they grew up, which I keep in my memories. When it’s their birthday, I sing them “happy birthday”. I ask (the guerrillas) permission to make a cake. Before they used to help me out with this and I did something to mark their birthdays. But for the last three years, I’ve been asking for permission and the answer is no. In any case, if they bring me a biscuit of whatever food like rice and beans, which is the usual, I pretend it’s a cake and I celebrate their birthdays in my heart…”