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Betancourt reflects on captivity

Ingrid Betancourt and Alan Johnston
Correspondent and ex-candidate compare notes about their hostage ordeals

By Alan Johnston
BBC News, Paris

In a room overlooking the banks of the Seine, in Paris's famous old city hall, the Hotel de Ville, I was waiting to meet Ingrid Betancourt.

Her story has captured people's imaginations everywhere.

She was the Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped by rebels, and held in the depths of the jungle for more than six years.

When the army finally rescued her in July, she emerged from captivity as one of the best-known women in the world.

As a journalist, I would have welcomed the chance to talk to Ingrid Betancourt under any circumstances.

But for me, this would be more than just another interview.

I learnt... how weak we are in front of group pressure - how we can even see people saying exactly the opposite of what they feel because they are afraid
Ingrid Betancourt

As it happens, I was held hostage at the same time as the Colombian.

I was kidnapped last year in Gaza by a group called the Army of Islam.

And in our very different prisons, half a world apart, our guards gave us both battered old radios.

Through the BBC's broadcasts, in my cell, I had followed Ingrid's story. And later I learned that, in her jungle hideout, she had followed mine.

When Ingrid opened the door in Paris and walked in we embraced, and then sat down and began to talk - one kidnap victim to another.

Almost straight away I told her that of course my experience could hardly be compared to hers. I was freed in less than four months, and she was forced to endure all those years under much harsher conditions.

And yet there were things that we shared.

There was the terrible guilt at having caused our families to suffer because of the risks we had taken.

"Oh yes," Ingrid said. "I felt it a lot."

Betancourt and Johnston discuss their experiences of being held hostage

Psychological battle

And she talked of how she heard that her father had died soon after she was kidnapped.

Ingrid Betancourt embraces her family after her release in July 2008
I wanted to think, one day I will see this like my past and I don't want to be ashamed and I don't want my children to be ashamed of me. That was very important
Ingrid Betancourt

She had found a scrap of newspaper in the camp where she was being held with other hostages.

Desperate for something to read she had smoothed it out, and then saw a picture of her father's coffin.

"It's a guy with the same name," she told herself. "It cannot be my father. It's not my father." But it was.

There were tears in her eyes as she remembered.

I asked Ingrid what she had learnt about human nature in captivity.

"I learnt everything about human nature," she said. "I learnt for example how weak we are in front of group pressure - how we can even see people saying exactly the opposite of what they feel because they are afraid."

I remember my time in Gaza mostly as a vast psychological battle. It was a constant effort to try, as I used to say to myself, to keep my mind in the right place.

Ingrid has talked of the same struggle as being the fight to keep her "head above water".

And it seemed that for both of us there was a critical point at which we accepted that we might not be freed for a very long time. Then we tried to adapt psychologically to that dreadful reality.

"Once I admitted that I was there for a long time, then I began to look at my surroundings in another way," Ingrid said. "Like, 'this is my world and I'm going to be here for a long time'."

Then came the fight to try to hold on to your self respect.

I told her I used to think to myself that one day my kidnapping might end, and that I must attempt to do my best - if at all possible - not to behave in a way that I would be ashamed of later.

"Yes!" she said. "That's the point, that was exactly… That was always my perspective.

"I wanted to think, one day I will see this like my past and I don't want to be ashamed and I don't want my children to be ashamed of me. That was very important."

Faith

But we differed in one major way.

I am grateful to the many people who I know were kind enough to pray for me when I was lost in Gaza.

But actually, I was not praying myself.

A photo of Ingrid Betancourt, from a video seized from captured Farc rebels
I have thought lots about all of this, and I've decided that there are things that will never be brought to the surface - that have to stay in the jungle
Ingrid Betancourt

I would hear on the radio of war and bloodshed in places like DR Congo, and I felt that if God was not intervening to spare the innocent there, I could not see quite why He might intervene for me.

I struggle to believe that God closely manages our individual lives.

But Ingrid's faith seems to have been a huge factor in her survival.

She said that I had simply not asked the right questions about God, and that it was our connection with Him that made us human.

He was not creating the ills of the world, she said. Mankind had been given free will, and it was to blame.

She said that not to believe, and to be cynical, was to take the easy path in life.

Forgiveness

Ingrid talked too of forgiveness.

She was forgiving her captors, she said. With some of them it was easy, but with others that was not the case.

She spent huge amounts of time in chains, and when I mentioned the noise that they make when you move, tears came to her eyes again. Some things, she said, she was not ready to talk about.

And of whatever physical abuse she may have suffered she said: "I have thought lots about all of this, and I've decided that there are things that will never be brought to the surface - that have to stay in the jungle."

But she was delighted to remember that moment when the Colombian army managed to set her free.

"Oh my God! I tell you, it was a physical reaction! It was a physical sensation and it was so overwhelming that I screamed!"

It was "a long, long, long scream", Ingrid said.

And all too soon our conversation was at an end. She had to go on to a lunch that a gathering of Nobel Prize winners was giving in honour of the Irish rock star, Bono. That is the world in which she moves.

As she was leaving, I said: "Stay out of trouble."

She smiled. "You too," she replied.

You can hear the full interview on bbcworldservice.com and watch it on BBC World News.

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