Betancourt reunited with her children after 6-year hostage ordeal

Posted in Latin America | 03-Jul-08 | Author: Simon Romero and Anahad O'Conn| Source: International Herald Tribune

Ingrid Betancourt, center, with her children, Melanie and Lorenzo, in Bogota on Thursday.

CARACAS, Venezuela: The day after she was rescued in a daring operation by Colombian commandos, Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian politician who was held hostage by leftist guerrillas, stood on an airport tarmac and embraced the family she had not seen in six years.

With tears streaming down her face, Betancourt, 46, wrapped her arms around her son, Lorenzo, and her daughter, Melanie, and recalled that when she last saw them they were small enough to hold in her arms. Now, six years later, the daughter Betancourt remembered as an adolescent girl was "dressed as a woman" and the once little boy nearly towered over her.

"Nirvana, paradise ? that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," Betancourt told reporters at a news conference on the tarmac as she stood arm and arm with her children, who were flown to Bogotá from France overnight by the French government. "I have so many dreams I want to share with them."

Betancourt thanked the governments that put together the clever plot to gain her freedom and urged them to continue working toward the release of those still being held by the FARC rebels in the jungles of Colombia.

Betancourt was one of 15 hostages, including three American contractors, who were spirited away to freedom on Wednesday after a group of Colombian commandos disguised themselves as rebels and tricked the guerrillas holding the captives into turning them over.

The three Americans were still awaiting reunions of their own. They arrived on American soil late Wednesday night after being flown by military plane from Colombia to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where they were undergoing medical examinations and awaiting meetings with their families on Thursday morning. The men ? Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell ? were taking part in a counter-narcotics mission for the Pentagon in 2003 when their plane went down in the eastern jungles of Colombia, a dangerous region largely controlled by FARC guerrillas.

In a television interview early Thursday morning, George Gonsalves, the father of one of the rescued hostages, said he was leaving Connecticut on Thursday for Texas to see his son Marc, after hearing almost nothing about his health or status for five years.

"It's been a long, long night," he told CNN. "I haven't gotten any updates. The only thing I've gotten right now is that he's in fairly good health."

"We have a lot to talk about," he said.

Betancourt, who flew into Bogota on Wednesday, stepped off a military plane and hugged her elated mother and husband. The entire family was scheduled to board a flight for France later on Thursday.

"I never expected to get out of there alive," Betancourt, her voice sounding frail but charged with excitement, said in her first comments on Wednesday night, which were broadcast on Colombian radio.

On Colombian television, Betancourt wept and smiled as she recounted a chain of events that seemed scripted for film, complete with Colombian agents infiltrating guerrilla camps and borrowing Israeli tracking technology to zero in on their target, before rescuing the 15 hostages.

A white painted helicopter ? backed by dozens of others in the area ? landed at the rebels' jungle base at dawn, carrying military personnel masquerading as FARC members. Ms Betancourt said she was disappointed that they were not the aid workers she had expected. Looking at the helicopter crew members, who were wearing T-shirts emblazoned with images of Che Guevara, "I thought, this is FARC," she said on television, and presumed they were part of a mission to transport the hostages to another location.

The captives were handcuffed and "humiliated," then put on the helicopter accompanied by two guerrillas who were guarding them, Betancourt explained. But once the doors of the helicopter closed, Betancourt said, it was clear something unusual was happening.

The guerrillas were quickly overpowered by the crew and placed in handcuffs, including the commander, who went by the name "Caesar," who had been her chief tormentor.

"Suddenly I saw the commander who, during four years, had been at the head of our team, who so many times was so cruel and humiliated me, and I saw him on the floor naked with bound eyes."

At that point the hostages knew their long nightmare was over.

"The chief of operations said, 'We are the national army and you are all free,' and the helicopter almost fell because we started jumping, we screamed, we cried, we hugged. We couldn't believe it."

When her handcuffs were removed, Betancourt looked down at her former captor ? their roles now reversed ? and felt a mix of emotions. "I saw him on the floor," she said. "I did not feel happiness, but what a shame."

In Bogotá, after a joyful reunion with her mother, she thanked the military for an "impeccable operation."

She looked healthy, especially in light of reports that she had been despondent recently and images showing her thin and distraught in a video captured from the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Taken captive in 2002 while she campaigned quixotically for the presidency, Betancourt, over her years as a hostage, became a symbol of suffering, courage and endurance.

The rescue was a major victory in Colombia's struggle with the FARC, a Marxist-inspired insurgency that has been trying to topple the Colombian government for more than four decades.

Colombia's defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, said the captives, who also included 11 former members of Colombia's security forces, were removed from the jungle on Wednesday by an elite commando unit in Guaviare after Colombian intelligence operatives infiltrated the FARC's seven-member secretariat.

The United States was involved in the planning of the operation and provided "specific support," the White House said. But officials there would not describe the nature of that support.

One American official who was briefed on the operation but spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed the intelligence support to Colombia for the mission, but would not provide details.

Betancourt and the Americans were among more than 40 captives used by the FARC to bargain for political concessions. The rescue came during a period of fragmentation in the FARC after the killing and capture of several senior commanders in recent months.

The guerrillas are thought to hold hundreds of other abductees in jungle camps. The American ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, and the United States combatant commander in the region, Admiral James Stavridis, were "engaged in the planning stages," according to Gordon Johndroe, the deputy White House press secretary.

"This was a Colombian-conceived and led operation; we supported the operation," he said, adding, "This rescue was long in the planning, and we've been working with the Colombians for five years, since the hostages were taken, to free them from captivity."

He said that President George W. Bush was kept apprised of the planning and that he called after the rescue to congratulate President Álvaro Uribe, calling him "a strong leader."

Senator John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, released a statement that said Uribe and Santos had briefed him about the operation on Tuesday night, during his visit to Colombia.

Late on Wednesday night, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, appeared on live television with Betancourt's grown children and her sister.

"Ingrid is in good health," Sarkozy said of Betancourt, who holds dual French and Colombian citizenship. "My first words would be to say how happy we are."

He also asked the FARC "to stop this absurd and medieval conflict," promising to take in all the FARC fighters who renounced violence.

In France, numerous groups were founded by artists and public intellectuals to support Betancourt's cause, and as her health appeared to worsen her release became a priority for Sarkozy and his new government.

Sarkozy had made various appeals for her freedom, and in April, offered to go to the border to personally accept her release. He tried to work through the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, and sent a French medical team by air to Colombia to wait for her.

In her years in Paris, Betancourt, the daughter of a diplomat and a beauty queen, lived a wealthy life, went to elite universities and married a career diplomat whom she had met when she was a student. But she returned to Bogotá in 1990 to start a political career after drug dealers assassinated a presidential candidate her mother knew. She divorced and later married a Colombian, Juan Carlos Lecompte.

Her two grown children took part in protests in Paris, where they lived with their father, her first husband. Betancourt's 2001 autobiography, "Rage in the Heart," was hailed in France as the story of a crusader against corruption and injustice.

In January, in a deal brokered by Chávez, the FARC freed Clara Rojas, 44, who was captured along with Betancourt, and Consuelo González de Perdomo, 57, a former Colombian lawmaker who was abducted in 2001.

During captivity Rojas bore a child, who was found to be living in foster care in Bogotá shortly before her release, and not with the guerrillas, as they had claimed.

After the discovery of the 3-year-old boy, Emmanuel, Colombian officials said Wednesday, they sensed disarray within the FARC and stepped up efforts to rescue the other captives. Hopes for the hostages' freedom had increased after the death or surrender of several top leaders in recent months. In late May, the FARC's senior leader, the legendary guerrilla Manuel Marulanda, was reported to have died of natural causes.

Marulanda, whose real name was Pedro Antonio Marín, built a rebel army from the remnants of a rural guerrilla group. The FARC remains Latin America's largest insurgency, with thousands of fighters.

Alfonso Cano, an urban intellectual from Bogotá, ascended to replace Marulanda, but the FARC has been weakened by the desertion or surrender of about 300 combatants a month, according to Colombian officials.

Although the guerrilla group retains substantial might from operations financed by cocaine exports and abductions, its apparent disintegration has drawn comparisons to that of the Shining Path, the once-fearsome Maoist insurgency in Peru that is now limited to several hundred combatants involved in drug trafficking in the Peruvian Amazon.

Last month, Colombian officials announced that the American contractors had been spotted in the jungle a few months earlier, but said that it had been impossible to attempt a rescue at the time. In the operation on Wednesday, Colombia's military appears to have drawn inspiration from one of the FARC's own most brazen actions, in which its combatants disguised themselves in 2002 as soldiers and abducted 13 lawmakers in Cali.

Six years later, Colombian agents infiltrated the FARC's ranks and persuaded a guerrilla commander called Cesar to allow captives held in three groups to be united for a trip by helicopter to southern Colombia.

Betancourt suffered illnesses, pain and indignities during her captivity, but doggedly persisted in trying to escape. Toward the end of her six years as a hostage, Betancourt's missives to the outside world showed signs of depression.

"I am tired of suffering, of carrying it within me every day, of lying to myself and of seeing that every day is the same hell as the one before," she wrote in a 2007 letter to her mother, Yolanda Pulecio. In the letter Betancourt said, "These almost six years of captivity have shown me that I'm not as resistant, nor as brave, nor as intelligent, nor as strong as I had thought.

"I have fought many battles, I have tried to escape on several opportunities, I have tried to maintain hope, as one does keeping head above water. But mamita, I have been defeated."

The letter was taken from rebel emissaries last Nov. 29, part of a package intended to prove to captives' families that they were still alive.

In the letter, she also wrote of the death of her father, Gabriel Betancourt, who was well known in Colombia for his work educating the poor. He died a month after her kidnapping, and in her letter, Betancourt said the she longed "to be with my papito, whose mourning I have not been able to complete, because every day, for the last four years, I have cried over his death."

And she spent much time writing about her two children in France, Mélanie and Lorenzo, and of how much she missed seeing them grow.

"I feel like the life of my children is on standby, waiting for me to be free, and their daily suffering makes death seem like a sweet option," she wrote.

She said she made them birthday cakes on their birthdays from her ration of rice and beans. "I look for them in my memories and I nourish myself in the images I guard in my memory of each of their different ages."