Published:  04:02 AM, 16 September 2020

The kidnap and freeing of Ingrid Betancourt

The kidnap and freeing of Ingrid Betancourt Ingrid Betancourt

dIn the six years the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kept Ingrid Betancourt hostage, I always searched for news of her. And twelve years ago in 2008, when word spread around the world of her rescue by a group of Colombian soldiers, I cheered with millions of others around the globe. For I have always held dear the principle that kidnapping is a crime that must not be allowed to pass unchecked and unpunished.

And I have also held fast to the belief that Betancourt is a woman whose bravery is certainly of an epic kind. She has suffered at the hands of her captors, a band of thugs rather than the revolutionaries they claim to be. Men who take people hostage and keep them tied to chains are elements whose sense of morality has gone missing, or has simply not been there.

When Ingrid Betancourt was captured during a campaign tour she was making in San Vicente in 2002, it was a world which, for all its sense of horror at the happening, expected the FARC guerrillas to see light and free her in the interest of decency. In the event, the guerrillas did no such thing. Indeed, they went on committing similar outrage over the months and the years.

They abducted other people --- Colombian parliamentarians, military officers, American contractors and a host of others --- and simply removed these people out of sight of their families and friends. Where the question is one of how Betancourt fared in all this long captivity under FARC, we know now in what inhuman conditions she was kept prisoner.

The thugs put a chain around her neck throughout the day and kept her tied to a tree. When she was allowed to bathe in the river, she had to do it with her clothes on because of the FARC guards who kept watch on her. That was indecency of the worst kind.

When you do not have the moral sense of moving away or averting your eyes from a woman in a state of necessary undress, you do not qualify to be described as part of humanity. Ingrid Betancourt did not tell us if in her long captivity she was subjected to rape. But she did inform us that terrible things were done to her, that she would not talk about them in the happiness she had found in freedom.

There were images of Ingrid Betancourt in captivity we recalled as we celebrated her freedom in 2008. There was the point when she appeared on a video, to say things that she normally would not say. In captivity, you are not free; and you do what your captors ordain that you do.

And what we noticed in that sad video was a visibly thinner, enervated Betancourt. And much, much later came that other, even more terrifying video image of a sad, subdued Betancourt. Her kidnappers certainly had little wish to let the world know she was alive and doing well. But they certainly wanted people to see how shamefully they could humiliate a woman who once ran for the presidency of Colombia. Ingrid Betancourt looked older, emaciated, drained of the will to live.

Perhaps at that point she had given up hope of ever being free, of ever being able to walk right back to the world she once inhabited and tell herself it had all been a bad dream? As one of her fellow sufferers, one among the fifteen hostages rescued with her, would have us know, there were times in her long suffering that Betancourt refused to eat or drink.

That was her death wish. She was in no position to commit suicide, for she was in chains and under constant surveillance. And she could not die, for death is often hard to come by. In that disturbing video, she said not a word. She merely stared at the ground, her sunken cheeks and her thin arms a very potent sign of the physical and psychological distress she was passing through.

And yet her friends in Colombia and elsewhere, indeed people who knew little of her politics and less of her background, were moved by her suffering. When she decided in 2002 to seek the presidency, no one gave her much of a chance of actually winning.

There was Alvaro Uribe who appeared poised to succeed the retiring Andres Pastrana. Betancourt was a beautiful young senator (she was only forty) who nevertheless forced the country to pay attention to her. Determined to show her readiness to be a tough leader, she came down hard on FARC and repeatedly condemned its propensity to kidnap people. It was perhaps her overconfidence (she did not see it that way, though) that eventually did her in.

Against the advice of the government, against the wishes of the military, she took her presidential campaign to San Vicente, a town surely in territory where the writ of FARC ran large. At a point along the road, her vehicle was surrounded by the guerrillas who, dispensing with the civility you expect from an organization professing to uphold the interests of a people, simply took her and her aide Clara Rojas deep into the jungle.

But Colombia, a dangerous country by any standard because of FARC and because of the drug cartels, chose not to forget Ingrid Betancourt. And then there were all the good people around the world, the French for instance, who knew that she had to be saved. She was, after all, a French as well as Colombian citizen. Her friend and teacher Dominique de Villepin, then France's prime minister, went all the way to secure her release from the hands of her captors.

His government dispatched a plane all the way to Colombia, without informing the Uribe government. The Colombian government was angry; and the rebels came to know about it; and the whole thing backfired. Many months later, Venezuela's dynamic leader Hugo Chavez engaged in negotiations with FARC, hoping to secure Betancourt's freedom as also that of others.

He was only partially successful. But Betancourt was not among those freed through his efforts. Earlier in 2008, Clara Rojas was freed by the guerrillas, kindling hope that Ingrid Betancourt would soon be out of the jungles as well. That did not happen.

All these years after Ingrid Betancourt returned to the normal world, one recalls the coruscating charm that made her a crusading politician in her times. We have celebrated her courage together with all those others who cheered her return to civilized existence.

We celebrated too the decisive leadership that President Alvaro Uribe demonstrated in office but especially his bold exercise of freeing Ingrid Betancourt from the clutches of what surely must be ranked as one of the worst manifestations of evil in the world.

A free, laughing Ingrid Betancourt is yet a joy to behold. Her strength, her endurance and her beauty have been a reversal of the horror that epitomized the jungles in which she was kept prisoner by bandits pretending to be revolutionaries. In 2017, she undertook studies in theology at Oxford University.

The writer is Editor-in-Charge,
The Asian Age.

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