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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 July, 2003, 12:47 GMT 13:47 UK
Colombia radio offers hostages hope
By Valquiria Rey
BBC Brasil correspondent in Bogota

For more than a year Juan Carlos Lecompte has been waiting for information about the whereabouts of his wife, the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

She was kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in February 2002.

FARC camp
Kidnappers can take their victims into the jungle for months
But like the families and friends of more than a thousand people who have been kidnapped, Mr Lecompte does not give up.

He often sends messages to Ingrid via radio programmes created to maintain a link between those held captive and their families.

"We are well. It's you who need to resist and keep on going. Take care my love. I love you very much and I'll see you soon" is how Mr Lecompte ended his latest message, broadcast on the Voces del Secuestro (Hostage Voices) programme last week.

Voces, the oldest of the message programmes, was created by journalist Herbin Hoyos in April 1994 after he spent two weeks in captivity at the hands of FARC.

When he started, the programme was only 15 minutes long on one radio station.

Now 163 Colombian radio stations transmit six hours-worth of programmes.

Mixed messages

It is also possible to listen to the programme in London, New York, Miami and Paris as well as cities in Panama, Argentina and Chile.

People of all ages, from across Colombia take part. The messages they send are varied and highly emotional.

When I heard the programme I knew that my family were doing everything to get me released
Jose Alfonso Villamizar
Former hostage
They can range from a child telling his father that he has lost a milk tooth, to a wife who blames the government for not negotiating with the rebels for the hostages' release.

Programmes have even included a worried friend warning a hostage that his wife is pregnant by somebody else.

"For many hostages, taken into the jungle or mountains for months, or in some cases for five or six years, this is the only contact with the outside world," said Mr Hoyos.

"It is what keeps their hopes of freedom alive."

The sex, age or profession of victims is not taken into consideration when criminal gangs, left-wing rebels or right-wing paramilitaries carry out kidnappings, says Mr Hoyos.

Those taken hostage by FARC, which is responsible for a third of kidnappings in Colombia, include children, soldiers, police and a group of government ministers.

For their release, the rebels demand anything up to $30m.


Dentists Sandra Patricia Gil and Sandra Marisol Gonzalez, held hostage for eight months, agree with Mr Hoyos.

"We suffered a lot from losing our freedom and missing our family and friends. The programme was our comfort, our only hope," said Sandra Marisol.

"When I received the first message from my six-year-old daughter, I was so emotional that I nearly didn't hear any of it," she recalls.

Ingrid Betancourt
Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by FARC in February 2002
"Through the programme, I could remember that I had a family, people waiting for me."

Sandra Patricia said her captors bought a radio and told her and her friend the channels that transmitted programmes for hostages and at what times. They also made sure that they were never without batteries in the 11 camps that the two were forced to stay in.

Mr Hoyos says the rebels well know that the comforting family messages enable the hostages to have the strength to cope with the long treks and depression.

"They can also be cruel," says Jose Alfonso Villamizar, who was held hostage for two years.

"Many times they would say that my family had forgotten about me and did not want to pay the ransom.

"But when I heard the programme I knew that my family were doing everything to get me released."

Mr Hoyos agrees that the rebels use the radio to punish hostages.

He says that when a hostage behaves badly, he or she loses the right to listen to the programmes.

Dissatisfied and unhappy, the hostages will then do anything to get their captors to let them hear the voice of their family again.

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12 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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