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Review: Memoir

Ingrid Betancourt's jungle book Add to ...

On Feb. 23, 2002, Colombian presidential Green Party candidate Ingrid Betancourt was abducted by one of the fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as she sought to reach the small town of San Vicente del Caguán in southern Colombia, a FARC stronghold and the site of ongoing negotiations between Colombian officials and FARC leaders. She remained their captive for the next six and a half years.

In what to her was an almost unreachable outside world during those years of isolation, deprivation, cruelty, illness and several failed attempts to escape, there were extensive negotiations for her release, involving, among others, the government of Alvaro Uribe, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. At the end of her suffering, it was a brilliant military operation, Operation Jaque, led by Colombian General Mario Montoya, that brought her and a number of her fellow hostages to freedom. Throughout her ordeal, the most constant voice of moral support was that of her mother.

This book is Ingrid Betancourt's account of those years, her struggle for freedom, her despairs, her relationships with her fellow hostages as well as with her captors. It is above all a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Not all readers, especially those familiar with Colombian politics and society, and with Betancourt's role, will agree with her portrayal of that society or of the role that FARC, as a self-styled Marxist guerrilla insurgency, has played in Colombia over the past 50 years. There have already been some conflicting views of that experience expressed by her fellow hostages, most significantly by American contractors Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes, who published their account in Out of Captivity last year. No reader, however, can remain untouched by Betancourt's account of her ordeal.

This is a detailed, sometimes month-by-month, account of her experience, drawing on memory and notes she was able to make during the sometimes short periods when her captors established longer-term, though rudimentary, bases. For much of those six years, however, she experienced what has been the fate of so many other FARC hostages, moving continually in forced marches from one location in the southern jungles to another, frequently chained, either alone or to other hostages. Toward the end, seriously ill, she often had to be carried as the group was relocated to avoid detection by Colombian forces.

Often, armed-forces helicopters would sight and attack the guerrillas, not usually able to distinguish between combatants and prisoners. The sight of those potential liberators raining machine-gun fire through the jungle canopy was one of the many frustrations Betancourt and her fellow captives shared: so near to freedom and liberation, but unable to act.

Her accounts of the mental and physical hardships will be familiar to those who have read accounts of other prisoners: the frequent lack of basic medicines, including for her close friend, a diabetic; shortages of food with a diet based largely on rice; the absence of sanitation; frequent exposure to poisonous snakes, caimans, ants and piranha, the true predators of the southern Colombian rivers.

But, above all, it was the mental anguish and often the deliberate psychological cruelty of her captors that took the heaviest toll on her spirits. Yet there is no hint here that she ever succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages come to identify with their captors.

Even Silence Has an End does not provide political or biographical context. For many readers, that absence will detract from a full appreciation and understanding of Ingrid Betancourt's experience. Whether, with her freedom, she will return to a political life remains to be seen since her popularity in Colombia is more cloudy than it is in France.

Stephen J. Randall is director of the Latin American Research Centre, University of Calgary, and authorized biographer, among other works, of the late former president Alfonso López Michelsen, a member of that older generation of Colombian politicians, yet one for whom Ingrid Betancourt has the highest praise. He holds the Grand Cross Order of Merit for his contributions to an understanding of Colombian history.

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