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Ingrid Betancourt's Six Years In The Jungle

In 2002, Ingrid Betancourt was campaigning for the presidency of Colombia. En route to a remote village, she was stopped by a group of armed men. Betancourt knew the area was controlled by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, but thought she could pass through without trouble.

She was wrong.

Betancourt was brought deep into the jungle, tortured, underfed and forced to march through the rain forest for six years.

"At the beginning, I thought it was going to be for a couple of weeks," Betancourt tells NPR's Guy Raz. "Then I thought, perhaps a couple of months, because it was just lingering, and I said, 'OK, perhaps till the end of the presidential campaign,' and then when a year went on, I thought, my god, this is a year now?"

She tells the story of her time with the FARC in a new book, Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle.

Betancourt spent most of her time in one main prison camp along with other hostages.

"We were ... confined in a very small space," she says, "surrounded with barbed wire. And in this very confined space, we had to live with people we didn't know, men and women all together."

Betancourt says conflicts were constantly erupting over the shared space, especially the tiny communal bathing area. "I think that the FARC was trying to break the unity of the group ... because they were afraid we could rebel."

That tiny, heavily guarded hostage corral was surrounded by the vastness of the Colombian jungle — a trackless, hostile space that foiled Betancourt's attempts to escape.

"We discovered that the jungle was another prison," she says. "It was impossible to just get out." But she kept trying, five times in all. And after her fifth attempt, the guards had had enough; they beat her severely and kept her chained by the neck to a tree, 24 hours a day.

"It was agony," Betancourt says. "I was forbidden to talk to my fellow hostages. I was in a position where everything was denied to me, I mean everything. If I wanted to drink some water, I had to ask permission, and when it was raining they could put me out, and I was under the pouring rain with no shelter."

The brutal treatment did not break Betancourt's spirit. Over the six years of her captivity, her fellow hostages learned to adapt. They began to answer to numbers rather than names. They did what they could to survive. But Betancourt remained stubborn.

"I had a problem," she says. "I had this belief that I couldn't just accept to be treated as an object. It was a problem of dignity." She says her fellow hostages saw her behavior as arrogance or troublemaking. "But it wasn't that. It was just that I couldn't accept that they would call us by number, because I thought it would make it easier for them to kill us if they had to kill an object, a number."

Betancourt didn't want to make it easy on her captors, she says. She was fixated on the idea of escaping and returning to her children.

But there were times, Betancourt says, when she thought she'd be stuck in the jungle forever. "The relationship with time changes when you're captive. In the free world, your days pass very quickly because you have so many things to do, and you're in control of your life." But with the FARC, she says, the days were eternal.

"We were always in two extremes: boredom and the anxiety of what could happen. And then, those days that were so long, when we look back at the years piling up behind us so quick, I remember the day I just thought, oh my god, six years have passed by, and it happened so quick."

Betancourt says her time in captivity dispelled any romantic illusions she had about the FARC and their mission. "I am of a generation where we like Che Guevara, you know, the very romantic kind of revolution thing," she says. "And in a way, I thought that the FARC was kind of a romantic rebellion against a system that I didn't like either."

But in captivity, she says she came to realize that the FARC was nothing more than the military wing of Colombia's drug cartels. "It was as corrupt as the system; it wasn't a response to the problems we have in Colombia."

Even Silence Has an End has met with some controversy: Other hostages, including Betancourt's one-time campaign manager and friend, Clara Rojas, have angrily denied some of the stories in the book.

Betancourt says she respects the other hostages' rights to say what they want to say. "Everything I told in my book is only there because it triggered some kind of emotional reaction in me, that I had to make choices, that it meant something in my reflection as a prisoner. But I respect my companions."

None of them were perfect, she says. "I wish we had been, but we were not. But I truly think we were the best we could."

Betancourt and her fellow hostages were rescued in 2008 by the Colombian army. "At that moment, time froze," she says, "because for so many years you've been confronted by your horrible fate. ... I remember that I screamed, and it was a scream like a beast scream, and I'm not sure if the scream was of joy or of fear ... because it was like the end of one life and the beginning of a new one. And what was that new one coming?"

Betancourt says she made some immediate decisions about her new life: First, she would wear perfume every day; second, she would never deny herself the opportunity to eat cake.

"I promised to have ice cream in my diet, and I promised to change my priorities," she says. In the jungle, one of the few books Betancourt had access to was the Bible, and she read it over and over again. One passage stuck out: "It says that when you cross the valley of tears, and you arrive to the oasis, the reward of God is not success, it's not money, it's not admiration or fame, it's not power. His reward is rest. So that's what I want for me now."

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NPR Staff
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