Monday 23 April 2018

Review: Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle by Ingrid Betancourt

Virago Press, €22.22

Rosita Sweetman

Ingrid Betancourt recounts her ordeal 'in hell' with a daily insight of what went on but few whys, says Rosita Sweetman

Small, indomitable, elegant, privileged -- Ingrid Betancourt was running as a presidential candidate in the 2002 elections in Colombia (she is half-Colombian, half-French) when she entered a demilitarised zone -- a supposedly safe area -- on the edge of the Amazon, and fell, almost literally, into the hands of Farc, Colombia's notorious guerrilla army.

Cock-ups with security, army-government helicopters and bad feeling delivered a virtually unescorted Betancourt into Farc's domain, where she remained for six and a half years, force marched ever deeper into the "green hell" of Amazonia.

Hundreds of hostages can be held at any time by Farc; pawns in an endless game of cat and mouse with the Colombian government -- you give us 500 imprisoned guerrillas and we'll give you Ingrid Betancourt.

Except, as she found to her mounting horror, there was no mechanism for handing over hostages, government rescue raids were as likely to end in the deaths of hostages as their liberation, and no plan existed in relation to herself.

Within the space of minutes, she lost her freedom, her life as she knew it and all connections to the outside world.

Luxurious living in Bogota and Paris was replaced by a brutalising routine of meagre food, forced marches, millions of insects (many of them with blood on their minds), sweltering heat and humidity, and a guerrilla army that viewed Betancourt as representative of all they detested.

Her bed was a plank under a mosquito net, shared with Clara, her director of elections. But, as Betancourt notes, far from uniting together against a common enemy, hostages -- driven mad by their conditions -- often turned on each other. You can't argue with a man or a woman with a gun, so you turn your rage on your fellow, defenceless compadres.

Betancourt kept her spirits up initially by repeated escape attempts. All ended in recapture (the first in multiple rape) and extreme loss of privileges. The unfortunate Clara, who maybe lacked Betancourt's arrogance and guts, screamed: "You are making everything a million times worse."

For Betancourt, battling was her way of preserving her identity.

At one morning's roll call, prisoners were told they would be known by, and answer to, a number. Betancourt, to everyone's terror, dug her heels in. No way would she be reduced to a number. She won.

"I didn't want to just wait for them to kill us, so I fought," she says simply.

The biggest battle was between cynicism (everything is hell) and hope. Despite everything -- the death of her adored father, learned by reading a scrap of newsprint wrapped around a cabbage; the loss of contact with her young teenage children, with her husband, with her mother, and with everything she knew; and their hellish living conditions -- Betancourt struggled to keep her mind from turning on itself.

Amidst the daily savagery, she learnt, with the help of two of her young guards, how to weave. She played chess. Another guerrilla gave her a Bible; another, a 2,000 page dictionary. She taught a fellow prisoner how to swim. Yet another guerrilla set up exercise bars, made in minutes from stripped young trees. One year, the young guerrillas, many the same ages as her own children, helped her ice and bake a cake for her daughter.

She went from hating God (how could he let this happen?) to belief -- everything has a purpose. Her greatest treasure now, she says, is an inner peace. "It is that I want to preserve the most," she says.

When everything is taken, she realised she still had something precious: the ability to decide what kind of person she would be.

The end came suddenly: a sting organised by the Colombian army. On the helicopter ride out, she finally realised they were free.

She remembers: "A long, long and very painful cry came breaking through, like a burst of flames reaching to the skies, forcing me open, like a mother in childbirth."

Her capture and sensational release made her an international celebrity. Consummate politician that she is, she has been riding that rip tide of worldwide sympathy both since her release and now, again, with the publication of her book.

Based in Paris, her global canonisation hasn't been without its hiccups. When she tried to sue the Colombian government for $6.5m, there was national outrage at home.

When several fellow hostages produced their version of events, they accused her of arrogance; putting other hostages lives at risk with her bolshiness.

In France, a satirical comic called Ingrid of the Jungle has been published depicting her as a monster of egoism and elitism.

One could go further: the upper classes of Latin America -- of which Betancourt is a part -- have a lousy history when it comes to democracy: think of all those creepy geezers in military uniforms and sunglasses who, backed by successive American regimes, sent millions of their fellow countrymen and women to their deaths.

Still, this upper-class lady, who was at least attempting reform in her election bid, had incredible chutzpah to survive "hell" as she did.

For my own part, I feel it's a pity Betancourt didn't hold off publication; her book is perhaps overlong on detail (600 pages of "hell in the jungle" are hard going, even for the most dedicated reader), and short on analysis.

As for the salacious recounting of what Farc did and do, can any of us in the West really point a finger when we know what happened in Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo?

Still, this is Ingrid Betancourt's story and she tells it, as she lived it, with brio.

Sunday Independent

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