Ingrid Betancourt's Six Years In The Jungle The Colombian politician was on her way to a remote village when she was abducted by members of the FARC in 2002. At first she thought she'd be held for only a few weeks — but then six years passed. She says she didn't want to make it easy on her captors despite being tortured, underfed and forced to march through the rain forest.

Ingrid Betancourt's Six Years In The Jungle

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

When Ingrid Betancourt walked into our studios this past week, the first thing that struck me was her size. She is very small, soft-spoken and almost fragile. And yet for six years, she managed to withstand torture, deprivation and isolation as a prisoner of the Colombian terrorist group, the FARC.

The story began in 2002 when Betancourt was running for president of Colombia. She was traveling to a remote village to campaign when she was stopped by a group of armed men. She had been warned the area was controlled by the FARC but figured she'd be safe. She was wrong. Betancourt was taken prisoner and brought deep into a makeshift prison camp inside the Amazon jungle. Her captors treated her and the other prisoners like animals.

Ms. INGRID BETANCOURT: (Reading) The meal arrived as I got back to the cage: flour, water and sugar. That evening, I huddled in my corner during the hours of that night without sleep and during the days that followed. My entire being undertook a curious path that led to the hibernation of my body and soul, waiting for freedom like the coming of spring.

RAZ: That's Ingrid Betancourt reading from her new book about her time in captivity. It's called "Even Silence Has an End." And this is her story.

Ms. BETANCOURT: At the beginning, I thought this was going to be for a couple of weeks, then I thought perhaps a couple of months, because then I realized it was just lingering. And I said, okay, perhaps until the end of the presidential campaign. And then when a year went on and I thought, my God, this is a year now, so it's going to be long. And it lasted for six and a half years.

RAZ: You were brought - initially brought deep into the jungle, and you were moved around during your time. But you were in one main prison camp for much of that time. Could you describe what it was like?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Okay. We were 10 hostages confined in a very small space, surrounded with barbed wire. And we had to live with people we didn't know -men and women all together. We had to share a little space where we were allowed to do our, you know, bathing, and it was like the toilet spot. And that space was one of the problems we had, because we were too many people for too small space and it triggered all kind of confrontation.

I think that the FARC was trying to break the unity of the group. It was one of their target because they were afraid we could rebel. So the life there was not only difficult because of the space, because of the lack of food, because of the lack of information, but also because we were forced to share that space in a situation that was hard for everyone.

RAZ: And surrounded by what you describe as this vastness, of the vast jungle. I mean, it was relatively easy to escape, and you actually tried to escape five times. The problem, you write, was what then. How do you...

Ms. BETANCOURT: It was very difficult to escape. I mean, we were surrounded by guards. We did it sometimes and we succeeded to just go out to that jungle. And we discovered that the jungle was another prison. Over that ring of security they had, it was impossible to get out.

RAZ: After your, I believe it was your fifth and final attempt, when you were unsuccessful, you were beaten, you were chained. What happened to you?

Ms. BETANCOURT: It was a moment of agony because I was chained to a tree by the neck 24 hours a day. I was forbidden to talk to my fellow hostages. I was in a position where everything was denied to me. I mean, everything. If I wanted to drink some water, I had to ask permission. And when it was raining, they could put me out and I was under the pouring rain with no shelter. And if I want to go pee, I had to ask permission, and sometimes they would deny the permission or they would just tell me to relieve myself in front of everybody.

So it was very humiliating. It was very hard.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Ingrid Betancourt. For six years, she was held prisoner by the Colombian paramilitary group FARC. Her memoir of that time is called "Even Silence Has an End."

You were taken prisoner with your then-campaign manager, Clara Rojas. Over the six-year period living in such sort of confined spaces, your relationship became estranged. She and many of the other prisoners learned to adapt. They learned to answer to numbers rather than their names. You refused. You refused to answer to a number and really refused to adapt. Why? Why didn't you just, you know, sort of say, I'm going to go with this in the hopes that maybe they'll release us all?

Ms. BETANCOURT: I had a problem. I had this belief that I couldn't just accept to be treated as an object. It was a problem of dignity. And it wasn't understood by my fellow hostages. Sometimes they thought this was arrogant or I was a troublemaker, but it wasn't that. It was just that I couldn't accept that they would call us by number because I thought it would make them easier to kill us if they had to kill an object, a number. I didn't want to make it easier for them.

My duty was to regain my freedom, because I had children waiting for me. So I was obsessed with escaping. And I knew that because we had become a sort of trophy for the FARC, they were not going to just negotiate us or to free us.

RAZ: I mean, you were, at the time, the most famous prisoner in the world. The French government was trying to win your release, and there were others around the world who were trying to win your release. You knew of this. You had access, occasional access to radio reports and you write about how that caused some tension with your fellow prisoners because you were the sort of the face of the prisoners.

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yes. At the beginning, I didn't understand why they were reacting to me with such an aggressive, you know, attitude. But my fellow hostages, like me, we were in a very deprived situation where everything was being denied from us. And the only thing we could cling to was our name to just prove our existence.

And because the only name that was brought up every time was mine, they were resenting that it was like the only one that existed was me.

RAZ: I can't imagine what it would be like to be a prisoner for a week, let alone six years. How did you just get through the day? I mean, at a certain point, you must have thought, I'm going to be here forever.

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yeah, I thought that. The relationship with time changes when you're captive. In the free world, your days pass very quickly because you have so many things to do and you're in control of your life. In our case, when we were abducted, it was exactly the opposite. The days were eternal. We didn't know how to fill those days with things because we were always into two extremes; boredom and the anxiety of what could happen.

And then those days were so long. When we look back at the years piling up behind us, you know, so quick, I remember the day I just thought, oh my God, six years have passed by and it had happened so quick.

RAZ: You write about at times you had a Harry Potter book between you and then at one time you had a dictionary that you carried with you. I mean, not much there to do.

Ms. BETANCOURT: And the Bible.

RAZ: And the Bible.

Ms. BETANCOURT: And the Bible, which was to me incredible. Because when I was freed, I just, you know, sometimes I opened the Bible to read a passage in there. I really thought it was a boring kind of reading, you know. But I think because I was so bored in the jungle, I had those endless days, I managed to read the Bible from the first page to the end. And I really think my relationship to God changed so dramatically in the jungle.

I had to answer questions honestly, you know, like, do I believe that He was resurrected and that He really, I mean, is that possible? So, my answer - and I'll spare you all the reasoning, was it came to the point where it could not not be true.

RAZ: Ingrid Betancourt, obviously, the United States and the European Union regard the FARC as a terrorist organization. You came to the conclusion pretty rapidly that the FARC is simply an armed wing for the drug trade.

Ms. BETANCOURT: I think it's a cartel, it's a drug cartel, very well organized, armed, everything. But it's a drug cartel. And this is something that, for me, was a discovery, because I am of a generation where we like Che Guevara, you know? The very...

RAZ: Yes, of course.

Ms. BETANCOURT: ...romantic kind of revolution thing. And in a way, I thought that the FARC was kind of a romantic rebellion against a system that I didn't like either. But when I was inside, I did discover it was as corrupt as the system. It wasn't a response to the problems we had in Colombia.

RAZ: Ingrid Betancourt, I have to ask you about some of the controversy about your book. Obviously, other former prisoners have written or expressed their own accounts and have written about fiction between them and you.

Clara Rojas, your former campaign manager, who was a close friend, has angrily denied some of your account of the book, particularly her pregnancy. She became pregnant in captivity and had that child. Is it painful for you to hear the criticism from your former fellow prisoner?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Well, everyone is entitled to say what they want to say. And in Clara's specific case, I respect a lot her decision. And for me, I just look at it in the perspective of what we were. We were victims of the FARC. We didn't choose to be together and to live what we had to live.

We were not the perfect people in the standards of heroes. I wish we had been. But I truly think we were the best we could.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Ingrid Betancourt. For six years, she was held prisoner by the Colombian paramilitary group FARC. Her memoir of that time is called "Even Silence Has an End."

Ingrid Betancourt, there were moments, strangely enough, bizarre moments of joy, as you describe, in this six-year period. One year for your daughter's, Melanie, 17th birthday, some of the guerillas brought out a cake. How did you react to that?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Well, I was very thankful, because you see, sometimes in the worst situations and with the people - the most cruel and cold-hearted people, sometimes you have a space for humanity. You see, there was this girl who was close to the commander. And when I had the chance, I talked to her and I said, look, it's my daughter's birthday and I want to make something out of that day. I don't want just to pass it like another day. Could you help me? I would like to bake a cake. When I say bake, you know, I mean...

RAZ: There were no ovens there.

Ms. BETANCOURT: No, there was no nothing, but it was kind of a fight hope. It was something. And I thought I wouldn't have any response. But what happened there, I don't know. The commander wanted to please her or they just thought they wanted to have something that I could remember as a good gesture about them. For me, I just reduce it to those parentheses of good even dealing with the bad, you know.

RAZ: You were obviously rescued in 2008. One day, a helicopter lands with what seemed to be FARC paramilitaries. They tell all the hostages to get on the helicopter. They say you're going to be moved to another camp. You're all brought to the helicopter, takes off and within a few minutes you're told, you're free. We're the Colombian National Army. Did you believe them?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Oh, yes. Yes. Of course, I believed them. I mean, we were in this helicopter and the helicopter began to fly up. And I saw the two commanders of the guerilla that had been our commanders for years, they were lying on the floor, beaten up, handcuffed. And I didn't understand what was going on until the moment there was this huge scream: We are the Colombian army. You are free.

And at that moment, just time freeze, because you have been for so many years just confronted to your horrible fate that you cannot believe that this is happening to you, see? So it took a while for me to just react.

RAZ: Were people crying? Were people hugging? I mean...

Ms. BETANCOURT: Well, I remember that I screamed and it was a scream like a beast's scream. And I'm not sure if the scream was of joy or of fear, because in a moment, I remember looking at the eyes of William, one of my companions -he was sitting beside me - and we were so frightened, because this was like the end of that life and the beginning of a new one. And what was that new one coming.

It was like when you're confronted to the void, you know, you have this impression of you're going to die there because you're going to fall in, you don't know where. And everybody was shouting, jumping, and I thought we were going to crash. The helicopter's going to crash. We're not going to be free...

RAZ: The end of the movie.

Ms. BETANCOURT: End of the movie. The horrible ending, we're going to crash. And we didn't. We landed like a rose on that tarmac in a village in the jungle of Colombia. And when the door opened, that's when I realized the dream had come true.

RAZ: I read that you decided within the last two years that for the rest of your life you're going to wear perfume every day and that you're not going to deprive yourself of eating cake. Anything else that you promised yourself?

Ms. BETANCOURT: Yes. I promised to have ice cream in my diet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BETANCOURT: And I promised to change my priorities. You see, I think that the whole concept of happiness changed for me. When I was in the jungle, I read - and it comes many times in the Bible - it says that when you cross the valley of tears and you arrive to the oasis, the reward of God is not success, it's not money, it's not admiration or fame, it's not power - his reward is rest.

So that's what I want for me now, rest.

RAZ: Ingrid Betancourt, thank you so much.

Ms. BETANCOURT: Thank you for having me.

RAZ: That's Ingrid Betancourt. Her memoir of her time as a prisoner of the Colombian rebel group FARC is called "Even Silence Has an End."

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

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