This is one of the most incredible books I have ever read, and I have read many. I had vaguely heard of Ingrid Betancourt before I read the book and knew that she had been a hostage who had been released a couple of years ago, and that was about it. Now I know she is a woman who endured six and half years in the Columbian jungle as a hostage under the harshest conditions and was eventually rescued by the Columbian army.
Ingrid Betancourt was a presidential candidate in Columbia in 2002 when she was kidnapped and taken hostage. She had been going to fly into a military-controlled region, but her place on the plane was cancelled and, as a result, she was driven there. She never made her destination. As a candidate, she was aware of the risks of potential kidnapping and remembered being given advice once: if the men are wearing leather boots, they are the army; if they are wearing rubber boots, they are FARC (a guerrilla organisation in conflict with the government). The men who took her were wearing rubber boots. One of her assistants, Clara Roja, was kidnapped with her.
They was driven further and further into the jungle, till eventually they got out of their vehicles and walked into the depths of it until they reached a temporary camp. Here they got their first inkling what life as a hostage was going to be like as they were put in a small enclosure with a mosquito net as a roof and a bed to share. Later on they were moved to a bigger camp along with other hostages.
There isn’t space here to mention the number of times they had to move camp, march in the pouring rain, deal with biting wasps, mosquitoes, bees. The conditions were horrific, but the psychological elements were the more difficult to handle for Betancourt. She and Clara soon began to irritate each other in such a confined space and, once they were with other hostages, she found they all began to vie for food and attention. The guards had complete control over them physically and psychologically and played with them, cruelly.
Ingrid tried escaping three times, each account of which I found fascinating. The determination it must have taken to attempt to flee into an unknown jungle with no sense of where she was heading, with very few resources, made me admire her determination and self-will. I suspect I would have wilted, slid into depression and done whatever the captors wanted. Ingrid stood up for herself all the way, often making herself unpopular with other hostages (two of the American hostages have since written a book in which they criticise her behaviour and how she got beneficial treatment).
What I found so interesting about this book was the relationship between the guerrillas and the hostages – what they allowed the prisoners to have or not, like giving Ingrid a dictionary when she asked for one, or baking a cake in honour of her daughter’s 17th birthday. How some of them almost became friends with Ingrid. How cruel they were to the hostages. Ingrid was often chained up, especially after her escape attempts. Chained around the neck, and either to a tree or another hostage. One particular guard who didn’t like her, always tightened the chain around her neck so that she could barely swallow. She still has faint marks on her neck from the chains.
In the book, she explains how one of the most difficult things was having to face herself – often she found she didn’t like her behaviour towards the other prisoners when she became spiteful, greedy or hateful. Slowly she worked out that she could choose to be how she wanted to be, and from then on tried to remain non-judgemental. I honestly don’t know how she managed it. I don’t think I would have been able to.
One of the things that kept her going was the radio which the prisoners were allowed (amazingly, I think) to listen to. Once a week there was a slot in which the hostages’ families were able to send them messages and for six and a half years, ingrid received messages from her mother – who didn’t even know whether Ingrid was alive any more. The strength of the love between them kept Ingrid going through the worst times (of which there were countless).
Towards the end of her captivity she became extremely ill with hepatitis, at a time in which the guerrillas were marching them further and further into the jungle to escape the army. She was so ill that she often had to be carried by the guerrillas, some of whom were very kind to her and others of whom treated her like a sac of potatoes. Some of the other hostages resented that she was getting special treatment.
In the end, Ingrid wasn’t released by the guerrillas but rescued by the army who deceived the leader of the camp into believing that they were FARC officials coming to take some of the hostages to another area. Ingrid and a few of the others were rushed into an airplane and once on board heard the incredible words, “You’re free”.
In so many ways this is a horrific read with the details of the experiences of a political prisoner held in utterly inhumane conditions, but in so many other ways it is an incredible story of strength and courage. Next time I think I’m having a shitty day, I’ll remember Ingrid Betancourt.