‘Six days ago I was chained to a tree’

For the past seven days Ingrid Betancourt has engaged in an extraordinary frenzy of tarmac reunions, presidential meetings and public addresses sparking an international outpouring of emotion, while readjusting to the oddities of sleeping in a bed and smelling perfume after six years held in jungle captivity by Colombian rebels.

But on Thursday she admitted post-release euphoria was beginning to give way to exhaustion. ”I know that it’s like the roaring of the waves, I know it’s coming and it’s getting closer, I know that it’s time for me to just stop. I don’t want to be submerged by depression.”

Betancourt, France’s new Joan of Arc — and possibly Colombia’s future president — was speaking in her first major newspaper interview since her release.

Since landing in Paris to a rapturous reception last week, she has rushed between plush Paris hotels and Parliament and senate buildings, all the time clutching the makeshift rosary that she made from string while chained up in jungle captivity. Her pallid skin and long, thin hair, and reported scars on her skin from chains are hard-to-erase signs of her six years in captivity.

She will not cut her hair until all of the hundreds of hostages still held by the Farc rebels are free.

Although she has so far refused to be drawn on the extent of the physical and psychological ”torture and humiliation” she endured, she said on Thursday that one day she would outline the truth of what she experienced at the hands of the guerrillas. ”I know that I have to give testimony about all the things I lived,” she told the Guardian. ”But I need time. It’s not easy to talk about things that are probably still hurting. Probably it will hurt all my life … I hope it won’t. The only thing I’ve settled in my mind is that I want to forgive, and forgiveness comes with forgetting.”

She said she must first forget ”in order to find peace” and then ”bring back the memories”, hopefully ”filtered” and less painful.

She has said her captors treated her with exceptional malice, because the Marxist guerrillas saw her as coming from an established political family and because of their own treatment in Colombian jails. She said her treatment had shown that every human being had an ”animal” inside them.

She learned how ”in any situation like the ones I experienced, perhaps any of us could do those kind of cruel things. For me it was like understanding what I couldn’t understand before, how for example the Nazis, how [things like that] could have happened.”

Betancourt, overcome with exhaustion on Thursday was helped into her interview by her daughter Melanie, stepson Sebastien and her sister Astrid, who said Betancourt would now retreat with her children to ”fill in the jigsaw puzzle of six missing years”.

The Colombian former presidential candidate, who has joint French nationality after marrying a French diplomat, will stay in France for the time being and would not say when she would return to Colombia, for security reasons. When she was kidnapped in 2002, she had been campaigning for the presidency against the drug-trafficking and corruption that underpins one of the most violent societies in the world.

She had received regular death threats and her teenage children had had to be sent abroad.

Now, even in France, her security is high. She has said she is taking time to adapt to beds, to hot water that ”hurts”, and particularly to the smell of perfume in France.

Once in the shower in a smart hotel, her son accidentally turned off the bathroom light. In the darkness she felt the Farc had returned to get her. During the interview, she burst into tears when talking of her return.

In the jungle she was often under foliage, unable to see the sky for days, or forced to march for up to 24km stretches, covering around 320km a year. She made five escape attempts during captivity, the first lasting only a few hours after realising she did not know how to cope in the jungle.

When she was caught after her last attempt she was chained by the neck and forced to stand up for three days.

After that she was chained for 24 hours a day — the only woman with other prisoners, male soldiers from the Colombian army, who often had not seen women for years.

A world of no stability
She described how she would set herself activities to stay sane, such as telling stories, teaching the others French, sewing, recycling objects, or writing. ”The important thing was to fill the day with activities that could be repeated like in a schedule: to give yourself stability in a world of no stability, that was the key,” she said.

She has told that obtaining a needle and thread or any small object with which to amuse herself was near impossible due to the guards’ treatment of her as an enemy. Other hostages would pass her things. Her key possession was a Bible: at one stage, her group was given books, including Harry Potter. She tried to limit writing in notebooks since they were heavy to carry with her kit on marches. At one stage, she burned four notebooks, knowing she was too weak to carry them.

She was irritated by having to succumb to the barter system of the jungle, using cigarettes as an exchange. She had to ask guards for every small item, from toilet paper to sanitary towels.

She rarely had anything new to read, but at the beginning of her ordeal, she was given a piece of cabbage wrapped in a scrap of newspaper. Eager for something to look at, she unfurled the paper to see a coffin and realised it was coverage of the funeral of her father, who had died a week after she was kidnapped. She has described feeling suicidal and wracked with guilt over his death.

She had an old radio which was a lifeline for the messages her mother regularly broadcast and for keeping up with news. She has said the biggest event was the war in Iraq, and described crying with emotion when she heard her friend Dominique de Villepin address the United Nations as French Foreign Minister, cautioning against the war. She also clung to any news on the BBC of the journalist Alan Johnston held in Gaza.

”I followed all his ordeal, every day. I remember the BBC transmitting messages to give him hope. I listened to his press conference and when I heard his words, I was thinking this guy has gone through what I’ve gone through. He knows perfectly what I’m feeling.”

She said she learned a lot from her fellow hostages, including the three Americans who arrived at her group after a few months in captivity. ”It was very difficult for them. Only one spoke the language. They had gone through very hard conditions.”

The Stockholm syndrome of identifying with captors is far from Betancourt’s experience.

Those who know her in Paris say she maintained a startling clarity.

As we spoke she took a call from a Paris politician to organise a pro-Colombia peace rally on July 20 which she hopes can be replicated around the world. She said her faith had been crucial, and showed how she wove an intricate crucifix from guerrilla supplies. ”They need this string to weave belts for their guns. I used it to weave a rosary.”

Her son and daughter, now 19 and 22, will on Friday accompany her to the Catholic pilgrimage site of Lourdes for a private retreat. ”I’m landing like a parachute in the lives of others. They have their own lives, their daily activities and I don’t have anything. Six days ago I was chained to a tree. Now I’m free and I’m just trying to understand how I’m going to live from now on,” she said, in tears.

She has insisted she believes no ransom was paid for her. On Thursday she described the operation to free her as ”100% Colombian” but that the Americans had been informed the operation was going to take place.

”There was some kind of technical, useful tools that were shared with the Colombians,” she said. Asked if the Israelis had helped, she said she did not know: ”It’s possible.”

On Monday, Bastille day, she will receive the legion of honour from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. She has described how in the jungle, she tried to wear red, white and blue on July 14, how she taught fellow prisoners the Marseillaise, and also gave French lessons.

”I haven’t left Colombia … My spirit is in Colombia. I’ll be back very soon,” she said. She was focused on getting across a message to the world ”that we need to stick together and fight for the ones that are still in the jungle”.

She has not commented on an interview given by her Colombian husband to a Colombian newspaper describing his hurt at the coldness of their reunion on the tarmac in Bogota, and how he thought she might have been influenced by reports he had strayed while she was away. He is not in Paris.

Betancourt denied that the French national outpouring of delight over her return to the country where she spent her youth had handed Sarkozy a huge media coup. ”It’s not a political gift,” she said. ”We’re humans. Why always turn human attitude into political behaviours? I hate that.

”I was so happy to be there. Touching him was touching France and all the French people. Love is the key.” – guardian.co.uk

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

Just transition could secure access to cleaner energy sources in...

A researcher says Africa’s huge renewable energy potential could save lives from air pollution

South African entrepreneur seeks to turn caterpillars into tasty snacks

For many people, particularly from western European backgrounds, the idea of eating insects is still riddled with fear and inhibition

No shucks given at the Knysna Oyster Festival

The world of Knysna’s shores is everyone’s oyster this week. There is something for everyone: arts; entertainment; trail running; wining and dining; and chocolate making

Plasma gangs: How South Africans’ fears about crime created an...

A tale of criminality, magic, violence and fear offered a way to foreground the contradictions that come with living in a township

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…