Ingrid Betancourt endured six years as a hostage in Colombia’s jungle, held by a series of guerrilla commanders, never knowing if she would see her children or parents again.
It is with this lens that she views the latest peace talks that began last month between the Colombian government and rebels, aimed at resolving nearly half a century of brutal conflict that left 600,000 dead, 15,000 missing and nearly four million displaced.
The Franco-Colombian who spent years contemplating forgiveness, faith, reconciliation – and escape – is optimistic that peace will come. But it will not be easy, says Ms. Betancourt in an interview ahead of a Monday evening lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum.
“Reconciliation is a decision that you take in your heart,” she told The Globe and Mail. “If there is not this kind of approach, there is always the impression that you have done a bad deal, that the other side is having a better deal than you have.”
Ms. Betancourt, who built a political career and international reputation as an anti-corruption campaigner, was kidnapped by leftist rebels in 2002 while running for president. The Colombian military rescued her and 14 other hostages six years later.
In her 2010 book, Even Silence has an End, she describes in detail what she endured at the hands of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, or FARC. There were natural threats – tarantulas and anacondas, giant poisonous ants, African wasps, scorpions, fleas, stingrays and malaria. And the man-made ones – chained by the neck, beaten, taunted, bound, caged, forced on endless marches, all with a constant fear of execution.
She also knows a lot about hope. She says she survived by weaving belts for her family, teaching English, praying and listening to the radio – including broadcasts from her kids and mother, and at times, Radio Canada (“it was like an antennae to the world”), until her rescue in 2008.
She now studies theology in England and works to draw attention to the plight of hostages around the world.
How optimistic are you about the current peace process?
Like in every peace process, and especially in Colombia, there all kinds of problems that will come through. Not only is the process by itself very complicated but it has lots of underground complications.
The process could be facing sabotage from some political forces, or from specific powers in Colombia which will make the whole process even more difficult. but I am still optimistic. I think President [Juan Manuel] Santos acknowledges all the potential difficulties and he is very keen on facing all the challenges. He is prudent, and good at building trustworthy relations. This will be important in order to replace the actual ones between the negotiating parties which are now ones of distrust.
The guerrillas, of course, have to understand that they have to move quickly if they really want to have a positive outcome. In relation with other process in previous years, this one has a very positive side: the guerrillas have faced an army that has been very effective. They cannot pretend to have obtained military victories ... that is a very positive element as a result of what Santos has done. He has been chief of the army and he has had those victories.
During many years, we had guerrillas that thought they could gain power, take it by violence, that they could arrive to Bogotá , and take over the government. They now know that it’s not going to happen. They know they could be defeated completely on military grounds, they could disappear without gaining their struggle.
You see we have to be optimistic but we cannot think this is an easy process.
Colombians have seen 48 years of conflict in what is the longest-running armed conflict in the hemisphere. What will it take for reconciliation in the country?
Reconciliation is a national decision that has to be debated and a consensus made among Colombians. Reconciliation is a decision that you take in your heart. If there is not this kind of approach, there is always the impression that you have done a bad deal, that the other side is having a better deal than you have – unless you understand that you are the generation that has to stop the fight. And stopping the fight is accepting not to fight back. When you are in pain, been hurt, been stricken, the enemy has inflicted a defeat on you, you have to understand there is something bigger than your pain and thirst for revenge, which is the future of your children and grandchildren, and someone has to stop this vendetta relationship.
It’s the position of a generation and it has to be a consensus decision and when this happens then it become an emotional reality ... and all those things are so horrible – rape, murder – then the victim can see the enemy as a human. It takes a lot of courage.
Do you look at efforts other countries have made to reconcile a turbulent past?
Yes I do. First for example, one of the countries that I admire, with different situation but in a way the same human kind of path, is South Africa. It’s a country where there are similar things, the violence of the conflict, the years, the system itself that was constructed for and by violence.
There are other experiences in South America that are important, for example in El Salvador and in Guatemala because they have been able to construct some kind of institutional framework to allow the reconstruction of historical facts, thus bringing the truth to the families of the victims and enabling them to mourn and accept personal and national reconciliation.
Argentina, in a different way, it’s been developing an incredible system of trying to find the corpses of the victims during the dictatorship, when a whole generation had disappeared and the crimes denied.
In Colombia, we have denial, we have the difficulty of recovering the corpses, the difficulty of memory, reconstructing a collective memory. We need to have a record of what happened so the family of victims can do their mourning and face what happened. You need details of the crimes.
What happens if you’re in a system that lies to you [is] you cannot rest. You only can rest when have the truth, even when it’s horrible.
What do you think caused the FARC to lose its way?
The FARC lost sight in 1980s when drugs became so important after the disappearance of support from the Soviet Union. The FARC had been trained by the Soviets and the link they had was very strong. Once that financial support disappeared, the way they made their way through that economic crisis was cocaine trafficking. But what happened, once they went down that path, many people from the Mafia came to join them ... guys had influence and some became commanders very quickly. When I was abducted I met some of those commanders, it was clear to me, between 2002 and 2008, I always thought the FARC was turning into a drug cartel.Their revolutionary side had slowly disappeared. That explains also why military grounds became less effective – they were concentrating on making money.
And for having a fight like that, you need to have a fire inside of you. If you don’t have that, if you’re [unsure of why you are] sacrificing yourself, you can’t go forward.
Many indications show life, on the whole, is getting better in Latin America – most countries are more stable, their economies are growing, creating jobs. Would you agree?
By some counts are getting better, but Latin America as a whole has lost the opportunity of becoming a serious actor on the international stage. We’ve been losing our personality in a way, with the great exceptions of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. And there’s too much division between the countries in the region and I think it’s an identity fight in a way. Brazil is doing great, they have a great personality as a nation, they are struggling to protect their identity and heritage. They have an independent policy and they have the size.
Other countries could have a very important role to play, but it’s difficult to maintain the compass in world-wide issues. They don’t have a strong [global] voice.
Talk about listening to Canadian radio while you were in the middle of the Colombian jungle.
I had been given a small radio and it was the first time I had a radio in my hands. The reception was bad, you couldn’t plan what to get. I remember it before the night came, around 4 p.m., I was playing with the radio, and suddenly it was like an antennae to the world. I was very, very happy. I lived in Canada [Montreal] for six months when I was 18. So it was incredible. Suddenly when I was listening to this, in my corner, trying to make the reception better, suddenly I heard my name Ingrid Betancourt, it was like a shock. They said some hostages in Colombia who had been abducted by the FARC had been killed. I learned that afternoon that two of my friends who were kidnapped six months after me had died.