Of all the horror, pain, and degradation both physical and mental that Ingrid Betancourt suffered during six and a half years in the Colombian jungle, perhaps nothing felt more dangerous to her than when her captors tried to erase her last bit of identity: her name.
They wanted to call her by a number. And she refused, angering her fellow hostages and probably putting all of them at risk. “Ingrid Betancourt,” she said when the time came to recite her number.
“For me it was like taking away my oxygen,” Betancourt says now, speaking in a highly emotional interview upon the release of “Even Silence Has an End,” her powerful, often agonizing memoir of life in captivity.
Betancourt’s book has already been called “a classic of Colombian history and literature” by Hector Abad, one of the country’s most influential living writers. It is also bound to propel Betancourt, a heroine in France and a more complex figure in Colombia (she is a citizen of both), to bigger fame in the United States. And it will raise the question of just where the former Colombian senator and presidential candidate (she was a minor party candidate when captured in February 2002) goes from here. Another presidential run? A global campaign against kidnapping? More books?
“I don’t want really to come back to politics but I can’t say I won’t do it (later),” Betancourt says, sitting in the living room of a friend’s Manhattan home.
At 48, the mother of two looks much younger, and chic in a short skirt, high-heeled slingbacks revealing purple-painted toes, and a string of pearls around the neck that, in the jungle, was often encircled by chains.
“I am concerned about Colombia and compelled to react,” she says. “But I have to reconstruct my life. I am a human being. All us survivors, we are wounded very deeply. We need to be able to reconstruct relationships with others based on trust.”
Betancourt was captured by FARC guerrillas as she attempted to travel to San Vicente del Caguan, where then-President Andres Pastrana had just ordered a rebel safe haven dismantled after failed peace talks.
As days grew into months, months into years, she despaired of ever being freed. Several times, she tried to escape into the jungle, risking death either from the elements or from the captors who tracked her down. One escape involved making a flotation device from a Styrofoam cooler.
As punishment, she was kept chained much of the time, often to a tree. She often slept on plastic sheets on the ground. Going to the bathroom meant asking permission to walk over to a horrid-smelling hole in the earth and compete with huge swarms of insects to relieve herself.
Her book begins with the horrible retribution after the third escape attempt, when she crawled out of the “cage” she and her campaign aide and fellow hostage, Clara Rojas, shared.
“I started with that because it was the hardest moment,” she says. “I thought if I can write about this, I can write about anything.” She was chained and marched back, as if on a leash. And yet she doesn’t write what is generally assumed: that she was raped once recaptured.
She responds: “I don’t like to write about everything. You don’t say certain things out of respect for the soul, for what you are, for others too – my children, my mom, the readers – even the captors.”
After more than six years of living with the threat of death hanging over her every day, Betancourt was rescued in a spectacular way. Colombia’s military infiltrated the FARC and duped the guerrillas into allowing her and fellow hostages to depart on a helicopter, thinking they were simply being moved.
Writing the book was clearly a painful experience. Betancourt says it took 18 months. She would eat breakfast, then force herself to write from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., with no break. She started with a list of events that she didn’t want to forget, and her memory, she says, would often drift to unexpected places.
She didn’t, of course, have notes to rely on. “We were frisked all the time,” she says. “So I would write during the day, but then burn it.” She was given two notebooks, she said, in the entire six years. She had a pencil, but no sharpener, so she used a machete.
And so, she says, the book “is not chronological, it is emotional.” But certain dates are seared in her brain. Like the day when she discovered, from reading a scrap of newspaper wrapped around a cabbage, that her beloved father, Gabriel Betancourt, had died, a year after her capture.
Betancourt says she truly feels different now, more than eight years after her capture.
“I think I changed character,” she says. “I didn’t think it was possible. I’m a more patient person, for example. My relationship with time is different.”