Ingrid Betancourt: Life after captivity

In 2002, Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian presidential candidate, was kidnapped by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), a group of armed revolutionaries. She was held captive in the jungle for six years. Now, three years after her release, she is promoting her book Even Silence Has An End, her moving account of the psychological and physical torture, starvation, escape attempts and experiences of her ordeal.

Betancourt sits in front of a large Oxford audience, thin but elegant in a black pinstriped suit. She tells the room the story of the day she was kidnapped, on a tour of the countryside campaigning for the Oxygen Green Party. On 23rd February, she was visiting the town of San Vicente, in a remote area controlled by the rebel forces that Betancourt describes as “wishing they were political revolutionaries rather than a business”. Soldiers at a roadblock stopped her car. Betancourt knew that if their boots were leather they were the military, if rubber they were rebels. Instantly she saw their boots were rubber.

In perfect, heavily accented English, Betancourt recounts the boredom of being stuck in the makeshift camp used by the rebels with only a copy of Harry Potter and The Bible to read, the exhaustion of twelve hour marches between them and the sheer terror of her many attempts to escape one of the world’s most remote regions. Her descriptions of hoarding food, stealing boots from the guards and pounding through jungle, petrified of the wildlife, sounds like something out of a thriller, but Betancourt’s stony face makes it clear that this was deadly real. When asked why she tried so many times to escape the FARC camps, she replies calmly: “I saw some of my companions accept what they would not accept outside. They wanted to turn us into animals. But for me it is a loss of dignity that is a loss of freedom. Most people tried to adapt, but for me that was not acceptable and so I was driven to escape.”

A French woman in the audience asks Betancourt: “Don’t you and your children feel angry?” In front of the large group she replies: “For four and a half years I could not think about my children. I wouldn’t want anyone to go through what my children went through. But they aren’t filled with anger, they have nothing to prove. They are free.” Later, away from the crowds, she tells me: “When I came back from the jungle, I had many evenings when they were around me. I could see that they didn’t want to ask questions because they didn’t want to hurt me. But at the same time I wanted to tell them things, but every time I tried it was so painful I couldn’t. So I came to the point when I thought ‘ok, writing the book is a good chance to tell them.” I ask if her children, who were 16 and 13 at the time of her kidnapping, have read her book. She pauses for a moment. “Melanie read it. Lorenzo read a hundred pages and then he gave up. He said he will read it another time. It was too hard.”

It is clear that it is not only her children that are bound up in Betancourt’s story. The Colombian ambassador has travelled from London to see and support his compatriot. A French journalist tells the room that she cried on the Paris metro while reading the public letter Betancourt’s mother wrote to her daughter. Later, a woman asks to have her copy of the book signed. She says quietly confides that she found out that she had cancer the day Betancourt was kidnapped, and was given the all clear the day she was released. Betancourt says that she feels these strangers who are invested in her personal life are “a blessing and a gift”. “When I meet them for the first time, I have the impression that they have been in the family for so long, that they know me. It feels really personal, like these are people who I have known all my life, it is a privilege really. It is very beautiful.”

Are there any plans for a return to politics? The answer is neither a direct yes or no, but it is clear Betancourt is still a woman of intense political conviction. “Education is the key. But education to acquire spirituality and responsibility. It is about values and a new kind of relationship between human beings. And that is only possible through spirituality.” Tellingly, even her current political musings turn inwards, referencing her jungle torment. She uses the young FARC guerilla captors as an example of the power of education. “I can understand why they chose to be guerillas, it was an upgrade. Giving them a gun gave them respect, and respect in life is a very important thing. It is what gives us dignity. I think these guys were searching for respect.” She recalls how intelligent some of her young guards were, how thirsty they were for knowledge and how, despite the communist heritage of their organization, she had to explain to some of them what a state, a constitution, ironically even communism was.

It is clear that Betancourt’s political views have been fundamentally changed by her experience. She openly talks about the spiritual growth she experienced in captivity – “I read The Bible many times” – and this is evident in her world view. “We have to change the way politics are done. You have to change the hearts of the people. Because we live in democracies. It’s not like we have this crazy guy that we have to abide because he was appointed. We cannot just pretend it doesn’t concern us. If we want to change things we really have to change. If we want to change the world we have to begin by changing spaces. And the core of that is our world, our inner world, which is a spiritual one. And that will change the way we have relationships with the people around us. Our families, our friends, our teachers, our fellow workers, whatever people we encounter in our lives.  And then this will change the way we engage between nations. We have to be convinced that we can do it. Sometimes we feel it is too big and we can’t do everything. Like, ‘how can I, my little self, do something in this big world?’ Well we can.”

Betancourt stands alone in the middle of Tom Quad in Christ Church having her photograph taken. When she returns to her group she finds that the hairclip she removed for the shoot has been accidently broken. She is clearly and visibly upset. Her mother had bought it for her and she cannot buy another. It seems slightly strange that a woman who has experienced so much hardship should care about a hairclip. But then she turns to everyone and says that it is fine, and they shouldn’t even think about it.

Later, something Betancourt says to me helps this to make sense. It makes it clear that everything in her life, from a hairclip breaking to her desire to study theology in the future, is shaped by her experiences and what she learnt from them. “When somebody comes in a loving way you melt, you want to be nice. And when somebody comes in a very aggressive way, you want to protect yourself and get back… We need to be more responsible. We can do it – I think it is the time.”