A French Hero's Tale of Survival
More than two years after Ingrid Betancourt was freed in a daring raid by an undercover Colombian military squad dressed as humanitarian workers, one of the world’s highest profile former hostages has delivered a potent testimonial on surviving the unimaginable.
Her new memoir, Even Silence Has an End, is a stunning exploration of the human ability to transcend a seemingly endless imprisonment at the hands of sadistic captors with a penchant for self-delusion. Her experience was, she explained in an exclusive pre-publication interview published by France’s Nouvel Observateur magazine, a “medieval tutorial in slavery.”
The 2008 rescue of the Colombian-born Betancourt spurred a wave of exaltation across the world, and led her to meet with national leaders, as well as the pope before she suddenly retreated from the public eye.
“I had decided that they would not hurt me. Whatever happened, they would not touch the essence of who I was.”
After half a year spent rebuilding a relationship with her two children who had grown up in her six-year absence, she sat down with a pen and paper, and wrote this strikingly intimate and unflinching book over the last 18 months. As she sifted through her trauma, she gradually managed to convey the great emotional cost of her captivity in nomadic prison camps deep in rebel-held portions of Colombia’s tropical rainforest. She was physically and mentally tortured, and often chained. She is convinced that the FARC rebel movement never had any intention of letting her go. She became, as she pointed out in the interview, “some sort of fetish object” for the FARC.
The strikingly blunt 544-page book begins with Betancourt on a mad-dash nighttime run toward escape. It is one of the many times when she tried, and as with all of the other times, she failed. The punishment was brutal. She was beaten, chained at the neck like a dog, and sexually abused. "I could feel I was being assaulted, driven to convulsions, as if borne away by a high-speed train,” she writes early in the book. “I don't think I lost consciousness, but although I suppose I had my eyes open wide, the blows I'd received no longer allowed me to see. My body and my heart were frozen during the short span of an eternity."
Betancourt’s unsparing early account makes for tough reading, but she consciously decided to share the most difficult subject matter early in the book. As she told Nouvel Obs, “After that, I felt relieved and I was less afraid of writing.”
That isn’t to suggest that the rest of her captivity was easy. There was the ever-looming specter of death, whether spoken in words or gestured with machine guns. There were the perpetual tribulations of a prisoner’s life in a tropical rainforest, the daily cruelty of her captors, and the challenges of trying not to transfer anger from abusive guards on to other captives, especially her former presidential campaign manager and cage-mate Clara Rojas.
On top of that, the rebels manipulated their captives to divide them and keep them in submission. “Our captors inundated us with deceitful information with the goal of creating conflict among prisoners. It was abominable,” she told Nouvel Obs. “Even if we were conscious of the manipulation, it was very hard to detach ourselves from that because we were so burned out.”
It was often almost impossible to ascertain the motives of her captors. At one point, a guard let Betancourt get ahold of a month-old newspaper—that included her father’s obituary. Was it an act of relative kindness or a plant aimed at breaking her spirit? It didn’t matter. She was crushed.
Still, the book is largely a stirring account of ways to keep the heart, soul, and body going when the time for reasonable hope has passed. In Betancourt’s case, that amounted to creating small rituals to give structure to life, and reading the few books that she had access to, including a dictionary and the Bible. "I had decided that they would not hurt me. Whatever happened, they would not touch the essence of who I was,” she writes. “I had to cling to this fundamental truth. If I could remain inaccessible, I might avoid the worst."
She harvested reserves within herself that she didn’t know existed. She sometimes found strength in blunt opposition, as when she told a rebel commander who wore a jaguar tooth necklace that he shouldn’t kill an endangered creature. At other times, she found an unexpected reservoir in surviving her own submission. "I observed myself from within, measuring my strength and resistance not according to my ability to fight back but rather to submit to those blows,” she wrote, “like a ship that is battered by the tides yet will not sink."
Her nightmare began on February 23, 2002, when her military escort was likely stripped from her by the sitting president’s office as she prepared to campaign for the presidency on behalf of the Green Oxygen party in an area that she had visited many times. A government invitation to fly there in a helicopter was rescinded at the last moment, so she went in a car, as usual, albeit without protection. Soon after, an impromptu roadblock of armed men stopped her car. She had joined the ranks of thousands of FARC prisoners.
Perhaps more than anything, Betancourt’s story of survival can be seen as a battle to retain one’s humanity. She had to find reasons to endure it all. Sometimes that involved scanning Colombian radio, when she was granted access, for her mother’s daily message.
Or by creating an “inner dialogue” that involved putting her most intimate thoughts down on paper, when she was given a pen. After two writings were confiscated, she continued, but began to systematically burn her accounts immediately after finishing it, to deny her captors a window into her mind. Still, as she noted in the Nouvel Obs interview, that acted as a de facto practice run for this book.
And it was this book that Betancourt dreamt of writing while imprisoned. A book that would explain to her children and her mother what had happened, and testify to the horrors that she and thousands of other hostages endured—and still endure—in Colombia. It was that dream that kept her focused in captivity on plotting her next flight, by obsessing over each crucial small step, from hiding a machete to secreting food, pills, that got her closer to freedom (or the illusion of it).
Freedom has brought surprises, though. There was her high-profile divorce from a man who, she concludes, surely believed she had died. She no longer had a home, a job, an income, or even a clear daily purpose in life. The regimented days of a hostage suddenly gave way to a disorienting and floating sort of freedom. She had to find her pathway in life.
She has been getting to know her children, who grew up in her absence. The former hostage has been living part-time in New York, where her daughter is a film student at NYU, and in Paris, where her son lives (and where her mother has moved from Colombia).
To her surprise, Betancourt has discovered that communicating her experiences directly to her family was impossible. Trauma is rarely processed so neatly. “I was completely unable to,” she told Nouvel Obs. But after 18 months of writing and editing, she has delivered her testimonial to them—and to us.
In her memoir, Betancourt notes that she didn’t want to leave the jungle as a bitter and hateful old former hostage. “Yes, we were all at the end of our rope,” she told Nouvel Obs. “When I say that, I have a very great guilt complex because I know that 15 of my companions are still there. They are still attached to that rope, and it is getting longer, and they are still holding on.”
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl, which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Reader's Digest, Vibe, Courrier International, Salon, and Los Angeles from five continents. He is based in Paris. Follow him at twitter.com/ericpape.