Journalist, producer and media consultant based in Spain working for UK press. My focus here is safe travel and the tourism industry. I also cover current affairs, business, architecture and rural regeneration, and work / have worked for The Guardian, BBC, FT, The Times, Conde Nast Traveller, Business Life, Reader's Digest, Evening Standard.
It’s vaguely European, Bogota, with its malls, brick buildings, drizzle and commuters in suits. The two of us sit about talking romance, London and kids; boys specifically, and their thing for Lego. Outside, at the apartment block gates there’s a sentry box, and a Labrador sniffing for explosives. To the east, the steep black wall of the Andes looms up, and to the south, past the rubble and squatters of Soacha, 200 miles across achingly beautiful country people avoid for fear of abduction, sits a festering, steamy, stretch of jungle, the size of Switzerland as everyone says, in which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are waging “un conflicto absurdo, sin fin”, an absurd and endless war, fought for the sake of fighting, its leftist ideology subsumed, sustained by the proceeds from the cocaine and kidnap industries.
Ingrid Betancourt, the kidnapped French Colombian presidential candidate is in there somewhere. As is her husband, the advertising executive, Juan Carlos Lecompte, now searching for her, village to village, following the failure of a bullish humanitarian rescue mission mounted by President Sarkozy last month. There’s a sense that time is running out for Betancourt. The proof of life video and letter to her mother dated November of last year, reveal a woman at the end of her tether, physically and emotionally. “I am tired, tired of suffering,” she writes, “I have been – or tried to be – strong. These almost six years of captivity have shown me that I am not as resistant, nor as brave, intelligent or strong as I had believed. I have had many battles, I have tried to escape at several opportunities, I have tried to maintain hope, as one keeps one’s head above water. But Mamita, now I have given up.”
Hard reading, and particularly for the woman in front of me who is in the unique position of being able to understand this degree of despair. Clara Rojas, Ingrid Betancourt’s old friend and political running mate, was kidnapped with her in 2002 and freed just last January. She had a baby in captivity, Colombia demanded their release, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela stepped in and negotiated a rescue, Oliver Stone turned up to film it, and, amidst a telenovela of plot twists and hopes dashed and resurrected, she reappeared after five years, 11 months away, as testament to the possibility of miracles.
Settling back is a complicated business. Clara left the free world a high-flying, cerebral lawyer and politician, and has returned a single mother, a folk hero, a symbol of triumph over adversity with some shade in her past. Her dress reflects it all: neat, peachy blouse and sharp gold framed glasses offset by the multiple wristbands, ethnic bracelets and home-made whatnots of a free spirit. Public interest and some not unreasonable residual security concerns have shooed her into what amounts to hiding, and while we’ve been in touch for weeks, extracting her actual whereabouts is touch and go. In the end I’m escorted by a security guard with walkie-talkie, and we talk in a hermetically sealed room with net curtains, blinds and spring lock door; she doesn’t want to draw the neighbour’s attention to her presence by us sitting in the courtyard. She’s disarmingly frank, but moves involuntarily from impish euphoria when her mind’s on the present, to almost total emotional disengagement when she talks of the past, recalling rather than reliving it, an instinctive survival tactic familiar amongst ex-hostages. The account of her capture is all the more chilling for it.
“There were risks” she admits, “But Ingrid was invited to San Vicente [in FARC territory] by the guerrillas. She believed in the importance of direct dialogue as the way for peace in Colombia, our party campaigned for it, so we assumed we wouldn’t have problems, that the guerrillas wouldn’t kidnap us, right?” Accompanied by a journalist, and cameraman, they flew to Florencia, were picked up by a driver and continued by road.
“When we stopped for petrol we felt something was wrong. We didn’t see any people at the garage, everything was quiet.” They discussed whether to turn back, but didn’t and ten minutes along the empty road met the FARC. “There was a roadblock of buses and oil tanks. They took Ingrid, and, when I asked where they were taking her, they also took me. The guerrillas were worried, they were sweating; the army was close, and of course, we were frightened of them; there were a lot of them, strong and armed.” One told them to calm themselves, because what would follow was going to be very hard. The shock and disorientation of it all comes through in her hazy recollection. They were driven for “3 or 6 hours”, in a convoy of “20 or 50 guerrillas”, they were rushed through the jungle on foot (“there was fighting nearby; people were killed”) and when they stopped at a camp what she remembers is the total darkness.
“The next days, weeks and months, we were moved again”. They walked miles in silent single file, up slippery mountain tracks, through rivers, the temperatures hitting 40 degrees, and humidity close to 100 percent (“difficult, boring. Dramatic, frightening”). Each camp was knocked together from wood and palm leaves, with the occasional plastic sheeting to keep off some of the heavy rain. “We had nothing with us; I carried a shirt, a hammock and a bowl for making a shower. On the first day they asked us our shoe size and gave us boots. We also had the same camouflage jackets they wore. We kept them on to keep the mosquitoes from biting so much, but this was something else we worried about, that if the army came, they’d think we were guerrillas and shoot us.”
“For almost two years, we never saw another hostage. We ate together, and often we cried, and at first we talked. We tried to escape. If we’d tried harder the first time maybe we could have got free and things would have been different. It is very difficult to think about.” Barely a month into their captivity they escaped from the camp but argued about which way to go, and hurried, lost for four days in the surrounding forests, unable to agree on which way to go. They went in circles, and when Ingrid stumbled into a wasps’ nest and in pain, desperation, frustration, began to shout, they were heard, recaptured, and chained to trees. It was something they could never talk about; it drove a wedge between them. “And as time passed we talked less and less. When you are trapped together, in your own pain, and there is nothing left to talk about, it is easier to remain quiet.” Shortly afterwards, reading one of only six newspapers she saw in all their years’ of captivity, they learnt of the death of Ingrid’s father, from heart failure. Ingrid locked herself up in grief, and Clara was left totally alone. It was a period, she says, of bitter, solitary nights.
“About a third of the guerrillas were women, but generally speaking all treated us the same. They obeyed orders, they were stressed, the army was always near, and they spoke very little, maybe about the weather, the football results. That’s it. It was difficult to communicate on a deeper level.” But during this time she did form a relationship of sorts with one of her captors and in late 2003 at the age of 40, became pregnant. Was this person a comfort to her? Her answer is perhaps disingenuous. “No, not really, because I when I knew I was pregnant I was moved to another camp. I was alone. I don’t know if he knew. It’s not a topic that’s important. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. I don’t have any information about him.”
In fact both women were sent to join 26 other hostages, mainly soldiers and police in a large camp, guarded by 200 guerrillas, but saw little of each other. To avoid attention and controversy, Clara was isolated, kept in a small tent next to the pigs and hens. She was initially optimistic: “I expected them to release me, but nothing happened. The pregnancy was difficult and I began to worry about the birth.” Worries that were exacerbated on learning that the FARC were not taking her to the Red Cross, but would deliver her child in the camp. Was there was a doctor, anyone with medical training? “No, no! No-one” she says. “And I think it was the first time they tried this sort of thing!” Nor did they have surgical tools. When it was evident Clara needed a caesarean, they used a carving knife, although they did find some anaesthetic. “They had it but they didn’t know what to do with it. Neither did I but I told a guerrilla how to use it and he gets the syringe and sticks it in my arm. That’s it. Guesswork. Very dangerous, and yes, it’s a milagro, a miracle, I survived.”
There was no time to recover. The army was closing in, the camp split (she wasn’t to see Ingrid again) and her group set off on a long march. FARC guerrillas carried the baby boy, Emmanuel, while, suffering from fever, she struggled behind. The damage caused by the operation and the rough stitches opening during the march has left her in pain and facing extensive surgery to try and repair her womb. “Frustrating” she says, “because I want to be with my boy, and this operation is going to be difficult.” But better than the last one. “Yes, much nicer” she laughs. “Now when I have to travel with Emmanuel, like when we went to Florida, it is very easy for us and I remember that time and don’t know how we did it.”
Clara and Emmanuel had eight months together, “time that was something very special. He touched the hearts of everyone.” It makes for a confusingly moving picture – Clara, captors and prisoners sewing clothes for him together from scraps; the guerrillas carving wooden toys, guns at their sides. The child was sunshine in such a dark and troubled place, but he was ill. He’d suffered a fractured arm at birth, and when he got leishmaniasis (tropical ulcers) and fevers, Clara again begged the guerrillas to take him to her mother. On what she says was the worst day of her captivity, he was taken away. Soon after, a radio appeared in camp and for the first time she was able to hear (albeit across a faint signal) the hundreds of messages to hostages broadcast daily by Colombian stations. She heard her mother speaking to her and knew that Emmanuel had never arrived.
“The next three years for me were terrible. You can’t look back. The past was gone. All I had was faith, and I used it. All the time, I thought about the future, keeping the hope alive as he grew from a baby to a boy, that one day we would find each other again.”
News seldom passes the other way. It was with the publication of a book on the FARC in 2006, four years after video images of Clara had been released that Clara’s mother, Clara González de Rojas, heard her daughter was alive – and that she had a child. Commander, Manuel Marulanda, said of Emmanuel “The boy is a little bit of us [the captors] and a little bit of them [the captives].” The following year, a policeman, Jhon Frank Pinchao, escaped after nine years, and confirmed this was so, and that Clara and the baby had been separated. Even in a country so familiar with the inhumanities of the FARC, the notion of a child born and raised a hostage, kept apart from its mother, to boot, provoked outrage.
Clara’s mother initiated a dignified campaign for their release, her open letter to her captive grandson reducing people to tears around the world. Vice-president Francisco Santos, (himself an ex-hostage) took up the cause and Hugo Chavez ran ‘Operation Emmanuel’ to the finish line. By the closing days of 2007, a vast international reception committee had gathered and were hanging round in the heat to greet Clara, Emmanuel and a second female hostage, Consuelo González, including politicians and negotiators from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Ecuador, France and Switzerland, two military helicopters, medical equipment and the Hollywood director, Oliver Stone. Just two things were missing: coordinates for the pick-up, and Emmanuel who, the FARC eventually, reluctantly, confessed, they did not have.
On the camp radio, Clara followed events. She discovered her son had been given to a campesino and left at a local hospital under a false name, that unclaimed, he’d been sent to a home run by the Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF). She heard that, two weeks previously, with negotiations underway, the FARC had sent this same campesino off with instructions to fetch the boy back, but his shifty reappearance at the ICBF office after three years, the inconsistencies in his story, and the media coverage of the delays in the release of Clara and Emmanuel, raised suspicions. Finally, on New Year’s Eve, she heard Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, announcing that DNA tests conclusively proved the boy, now in foster care was her son. “I’d been so distressed by what had happened to him, but to know that he was free, he was out, that we were going to be together … this meant so much to me.”
Top of the list back in the real world was escapism. After a trip to meet Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Clara, Emmanuel and Senora González de Rojas headed to Disney World, Florida, where they entered the Magic Kingdom and posed for pictures with Mickey Mouse, before giving thanks to God for miracles in the Mary Queen of the Universe National Shrine. It was a dream Clara had harboured while lying in her jungle hammock during the years after Emmanuel was gone, “And there we were!”
She has a support team to help her adjust to life generally, motherhood in particular. “They talked with Emmanuel and showed him pictures of me before we were reunited, so he knew who I was. And they help me, say not to worry, to take my time and trust my instincts. I used to have a busy career and time alone to read, write and think so sometimes it is a little difficult, but wonderful also.” She describes the impact of first opening the door to her own apartment close by and seeing all her things, “the great number of things, everything with its history”. But now all the books are in boxes ready for sorting and the place is undergoing the transformation into family home. Emmanuel’s fourth birthday present last month was the Lego, Clara and I were discussing, and paints, toys, games and books and his very own room, painted blue.
“Here I am and I’m fine” she says. “I’m older, I lost time, I faced a difficult experience and got through it, and it’s changed by perspective on life, my values. I haven’t been frightened off returning to politics, but for now my priority is my health, building the relationship with my son, and having time with my mother. I’m so very happy that we are together, and I thank God every day for it.”
We’re talking in a smart block surrounded by the ordinary, temperate bustle of Bogota, but the mad, cruel stuff going on and on in the south doesn’t feel so far away, even to me. Clara is out of it, but tied to it by thoughts of the people she left behind, of Ingrid, pining for her children, her “heart breaking into pieces”, her once rich, promising life by her own description “a gruesome waste of time.” And, more accustomed to receiving messages of comfort over the airwaves, she has been sending them. “She was so strong. I’m holding onto the hope that she still has that strength of character, and sending messages to say how important it is to maintain hope, how important it is to have faith, to know that liberation is possible. “
Incidents of kidnapping are down (Colombia’s hostage tally is around 3000, 701 of whom are held by the FARC) but it permeates society, shapes, limits, and drives decent people to stand up, speak out and be vulnerable. The president’s father was killed in an attempted kidnapping, a plot to kidnap his sons foiled last year. Vice-president Francisco Santos was kidnapped, as was the father of the interior minister, the aunt of the culture minister, the daughter of a former kidnap csar, the brothers of the education minister (who were killed). Whether she returns to politics or not, I wonder whether Clara Rojas, who has every reason to celebrate, will ever really be free.
SORREL DOWNER / THE TIMES, 2008.