Former Hostage Tells Of Life In Captivity
Warning: Contains Graphic Details. Listener Discretion Advised.
CHERYL CORLEY, host:
I'm Cheryl Corley. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Coming up, the story of the war in Congo told through photographs of the women who survived it. First, another story of survival - a former hostage who is rebuilding his life after years of captivity. Six years ago, a civilian plane carrying four Pentagon contractors crash-landed in territory controlled by Colombian guerillas. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC, killed one of the Americans shortly thereafter, but kept the three survivors captive for the next five-and-a-half years.
During that time, Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell were dragged between a series of remote jungle encampments. They and a dozen Colombian hostages were freed last July, thanks to an elaborate operation by the Colombian army. The three American hostages have written a book, "Out of Captivity: Surviving 1967 Days in the Colombian Jungle." Here to tell us about the book is one of the authors, Keith Stansell. Thanks for joining us.
Mr. KEITH STANSELL (Author, "Out of Captivity: Surviving 1967 Days in the Colombian Jungle"): I'm glad to be here.
CORLEY: Well, you know, you cite many bizarre anecdotes in your book. For instance, early in your captivity, when you were ill, three women terrorists gave you a sponge bath and years later you were literally chained to another hostage as you gathered sand for a volleyball court in a jungle camp. And I was just wondering, as you get further and further away from that situation, from captivity, does all of that strike you as very surreal?
Mr. STANSELL: It was like "Planet of the Apes" for me. That's the best comparison I can make. It was a real-life version of that under a lot worse conditions. And, you know, speaking of the three women who bathed me, what had happened was, when we were captured, the leader of the mobile com that captured us was a female, and I had not eaten for nine days, nor had bathed, and we had been, you know, essentially on the run.
They get boots on my feet that didn't fit me because I'm much bigger than the average Colombian down there. They gave me boots and cut the tips off the boots so I had lost all my toenails. My feet were bloody, and they just looked like hamburger. We got to one point, and I kind of laugh about it with my family now, but we were just exhausted, and they were concerned about me, so they put me in the river, and these three young guerillas, three girls, I guess, from 17 to 19, bathed me.
I didn't look like a human being. If you would see that I was covered in mud and blood and it was - so it sounds - we make the comment, I kid with my fiancee over that, you know, it's kind of our joke, but in reality, it was a sick thing that was going on. You have a guy laying on a rock who was basically, you know, been dragged through hell and back for about a-week-and-a-half, so now we're going to try and clean him up a bit.
Also, I was incapable of bathing myself at that point. I had a hip problem and broken ribs. You could take your finger and stick it through my ribs into, I guess, to wherever it is it's touching inside my body. So it wasn't a pleasant experience.
CORLEY: Very hard, it sounds like very extreme, extreme conditions. And at one point you and other hostages organized a hunger strike. And I was wondering how you came about doing that and what were the results of that?
Mr. STANSELL: Well, what had happened when we called a hunger strike, we were in what we called Camp Caribe and in the first two years or so of our captivity, the FARC were in a much better shape than they are in today, and they were able to maintain relatively large fixed camps. So we were in what we called Camp Caribe, where we were mixed with seven other Colombian politicians.
And one of the women there, Clara Rojas, was pregnant and had given birth in captivity to her son, Emmanuel. And, you know, imagine you're in a Nazi-style concentration camp, guard towers, barbed wire, I mean, just picture it as bad as it can be, and I mean, it is all of that and more. And they bring this newborn baby, and they've broken his arm in half, you know, that they had, you know, basically, a guy that wasn't a doctor with an instruction book - they did a cesarean and brought Clara and him back into the camp.
And they've got them drugged. He won't even respond because of the pain of his arm basically being snapped in half. So here we are as human beings, not only watching this tragedy unfold before us, a woman having to give birth in captivity in a POW camp, but then to see the treatment for the baby. So what happened, actually, it wasn't us, it was one of the Colombian politicians who got real angry and said, hey, you know, we're not going to eat until they do something for this child.
And the object of the hunger strike and it only lasted a day, so it wasn't anything that lasted any length of time, was trying to create strife for the guerilla to answer some kind of basic medical needs for this child and his mother.
CORLEY: All right, when you say FARC, we're, of course, talking about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
Mr. STANSELL: Of Colombia, yes.
CORLEY: Yeah. Why were you there?
Mr. STANSELL: I was captured by the FARC because I worked as a contractor under a program called Plan Colombia. And I was a mission commander and we collected intelligence against counter-drug targets, whether it was coca fields, laboratories or people working a drug, we were a counterintelligence platform that was employed as a help against the war on drugs and part of Plan Colombia.
CORLEY: Well, if you are just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with former hostage Keith Stansell about his new book. Was there any moment when you were in captivity that was tougher for you than any other?
Mr. STANSELL: The toughest moment for me in captivity was the day that I heard, and it was an emotional thing for me, you know, I've been there in captivity for almost a year, and my 11-year-old boy comes on the radio, and I have to draw a deep breath, it's very hard for me to speak of it now. I heard him come on, he said, dad, he goes, I'm doing great. It's Kyle. I love you. I'm sorry I missed your birthday. I'm sorry I missed Thanksgiving. I'm sorry I missed Christmas. Please hang on, dad. I love you.
That was the most difficult moment in captivity, to hear my son apologizing because he wasn't able to be with me. He was so worried about me on my birthday. That was hands down the hardest part of my captivity, that very moment when he spoke to me.
CORLEY: It seemed a little odd, but in the book you talk about how you consider yourself a lucky man, even though you were in such a horrific situation. What do you mean?
Mr. STANSELL: It was a traumatic experience. It was tough. Obviously it was a tragedy. You can write 10 paragraphs in a book on what we suffered, but my appreciation for life and my perspective that I have on life is richer now than I ever imagined it could be. And I will say this. This five-and-a-half years I spent in captivity will be the biggest win that ever happened in my life.
CORLEY: You're an ex-Marine.
Mr. STANSELL: Yes, ma'am.
CORLEY: And in the book you describe yourself as a leatherneck. And you wrote, I was an American, and I was going to act like an American no matter where in the world I was and that was that. And I was wondering if that attitude complicated relations with the guerillas.
Mr. STANSELL: You know something? With the guerillas, I early on made a decision to not be confrontational with them. And you have to take into consideration the average FARC guard because you're dealing with a person that's very ignorant, a type of ignorance that we here in America cannot really understand. You can't really assimilate unless you've lived it.
And very simple people, very poor people that have nothing, obviously, on the guard level. I treated them with a tremendous amount of respect. And I think that that bought all of us, Marc, Tom, and I, a type of respect from those guerillas because we treated them very well. And several of them were very sympathetic to us and risked their lives to do things for us because we treated them like human beings.
CORLEY: You don't paint a very flattering picture of one of your fellow hostages, the former Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt. And you kind of describe her, well, you describe her as a back-biting hottie, a manipulative princess. Why did you describe her that way? And why do you think she was acting that way if that indeed was what was happening?
Mr. STANSELL: Well, let's face it. In Colombia, a country which I love a lot, there's also a class system and a certain social level, and we were with, you know, the country's elite, with congressmen and senators. So we've upset that hierarchy because we were not going to be any better or any worse than anybody else.
You know, Tom said something very eloquent very early on. He said Keith, I look up at a guard tower and 24 hours a day there's a guy with an AK-47 pointed at me. I've got another caretaker that tells me when to bathe, he tells me when to sleep and he tells me what to do. He said, I will not have another person dominate me here, nor try and use their influence to boss me around.
And that's really - the issue I have with her is that she was very self-fulfilling and very narcissistic. And thing that killed me is what I don't like is it may sound harsh and the point is not to attack someone, but when the other Colombian politicians came out of captivity, they've painted a picture of captivity that I never saw.
You know, they painted a picture of themselves that, you know, I never witnessed this. And something, you know, I look at myself every morning in the mirror and there are scars around my neck from where I wore chains, you know, I was chained up like a dog. I will not come out of captivity and have somebody else put chains on me and say hey, Keith, you can't talk about the bad stuff that happened. It doesn't work.
CORLEY: Because you're saying that's what the other ones did?
Mr. STANSELL: Oh, essentially that's what they did. They have absolutely created something. And, you know, I asked one of the politicians one time, it was actually Ingrid. I said, hey, Ingrid, you know, I said, what's going to happen when you get out of here for all of you guys? You're going to have to confront what you've done here. She said, no, I won't, Keith. She said we all have dirt on each other and no one will break the bond.
I said, well, I'm an American, and I don't have to worry about that. I paid too high of a price to come out and try and lie so I can make other people look good. I just won't - I will not participate in that.
CORLEY: Tell us about how you were rescued.
Mr. STANSELL: Well, the background here is that Colombian intelligence really had a tremendous coup. And they were able to crack the radio codes of the FARC. So they started driving us around, and brought us together and told the people that had us, you know, they were impersonating the higher command of the FARC, so to say, that we were going to be taken in two helicopters to see Alfonso Cano, who was the new leader of the FARC.
So what happened was we had a group of Colombian soldiers, men and women, tremendous people, who took on the role of, you know, like an ONG and, you know, humanitarian workers to come in and pick us up in helos and move us to the FARC commander.
They dressed in Che Guevara T-shirts. They played as though they were sympathizers. And, you know, essentially, they came into a group of a couple hundred guerillas, unarmed in a helicopter, landed and exposed themselves, risked everything to sell this story to the FARC, even insofar as they had, you know a fake TV camera and everything.
It was real, but I mean, you know, portraying this. The FARC commander, front commander, Cesar, another GOF, his name is Enrique, who actually was the company commander, the guy that held us, they got on the helicopter with us. And, you know, they were - they managed to sneak their pistols on and nothing else. We were all tie-wrapped. And they convinced these guys that they were moving us to another site.
So, you know, we got on the helicopter and as soon as it took off, these guys start shouting Colombian army and the beat-down began, and we disarmed these two guys, and we were free. But, you know, it's an example of what the Colombian military now is capable of. They are night and day what they were seven years ago. And, you know, it's a tribute to people to risk their lives like this, put everything on the line to rescue us.
CORLEY: That was Keith Stansell, an American hostage freed after being held by Colombian guerillas for 1,967 days. He joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Mr. STANSELL: Thank you.
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