Letter from a Famous Hostage Stirs Colombia

A letter from a hostage held by Colombian Marxist guerrillas has brought renewed attention to the country's kidnapping epidemic. Noted author and politician Ingrid Betancourt, held by the rebels since 2002, wrote the anguished 12-page letter to her mother.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

Turning our attention now to South America. In Colombia, people have grown accustomed to the epidemic of kidnappings carried out by the rebel group known as the FARC. But the nation has been stirred like any before since an emotional letter written by a famous hostage reached the outside world.

Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by Marxist guerillas in 2002. And since then little has been known about her, until that 12-paged letter to her mother surfaced.

NPR's Juan Forero reports from Bogota.

(Soundbite of voices)

JUAN FORERO: At a packed park, families huddle under umbrellas and watch performance art, a serene tragic production called "Absence," about the horror of kidnapping.

(Soundbite of man shouting)

FORERO: In "Absence," a man blindfolded wails in anguish. It's meant to symbolize the torment of a war crime that's brought endless pain to a country locked in a long guerilla war.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

FORERO: This song from the production says there's no one with grander dreams than one who is chained. Among those held by FARC guerillas are three American Pentagon contractors, captured in 2003 when their plane went down. There are 750 others held by the FARC: soldiers, policemen, politicians.

And then there's Ingrid Betancourt, who turns 46 on Christmas day, a former Senator, best-selling author, a relentless reformer and presidential candidate. A citizen of Colombia and France, her liberation has become a priority for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and also for her mother, Yolanda Pulecio.

Ms. YOLANDA PULECIO (Mother): (Through translator) Only God knows what I've suffered.

FORERO: Her pain has been magnified since reading the letter, which was seized from rebels recently and made public. In meticulous prose, Betancourt recounts her ordeal, how she cannot eat, how her hair falls out in clumps, how her strength in a jungle camp is sapped. And she speaks of her love for her children, now adults living in Paris and New York. She speaks of merely giving up, but there's fight in her letter too, so says Pulecio whose life is one of endless diplomatic missions to Europe and Latin America.

Ms. PULECIO: (Through translator) I know that Ingrid, she's so beautiful, tries to gather up all her strength, tries to keep her head up to keep living. It's been too hard what she's had to deal with.

FORERO: Colombia's policy under President Alvaro Uribe has been to give no ground to the FARC. But under increasing international pressure, he has proposed the special 58-square-mile zone for a meeting to negotiate an exchange, hostages for government-held rebels.

But the offer fall short of rebel demands. They want the right to be armed during talks, and they have their minds set on a specific location. They haven't rejected the offer. But Alvaro Leyva, a former government minister, who's been a go-between with rebels, says it's not a recipe for success.

Mr. ALVARO LEYVA (Former Government Minister): (Through translator) Establishing a meeting place is something that has to be done by consensus because, naturally, you need two to tango.

FORERO: Efforts to free the hostages gathered steam this fall when the president of neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, took over mediation efforts with the rebels. He claimed that he was on the verge of success last month. Pulecio says the deal would have freed four women, including her daughter. Then Uribe abruptly fired Chavez saying he was indelicately handling a delicate job.

A week later, Betancourt's letter and videos of her and other hostages were released. The Venezuelans said they were part of a proof-of-life package the FARC had sent to Chavez before its interception by Colombia's army.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro charges that by sacking Chavez, Uribe showed he didn't really want an accord.

Minister NICHOLAS MADURO (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Venezuela): (Through translator) They don't believe in peace. They don't bet on peace. They're too tied to the interest of war.

FORERO: But Uribe insists his government has worked hard for a deal.

President ALVARO URIBE (Colombia): (Through translator) We've made all the efforts; the response, killings and lies.

FOREROR: In her emotional letter, Betancourt tells her mother life in a jungle is dismal. Her companions are male guerrillas. She asked for books, the answer is always no. She says that, quote, "I'm not as resistant, as courageous, as intelligent, or as strong as I thought." Death, she says, sometimes seems like a sweet option. She says she doesn't know how long she can last. Writing now for her children, she says…

Ms. INGRID BETANCOURT (Former Colombian Senator; Activist): So much of life has passed us by as if the horizon were disappearing in the distance. They are the same and they are others. And each second of my absence, of not being able to be there for them, of caring for their pain, of being unable to advise them, give them strength, show patience and humility in the face of life's blows, all those opportunities lost for a mother, poisoned the moments of infinite loneliness as a cyanide had been put in my veins, drop by drop.

FORERO: Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota, Colombia.

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