Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ex-Kidnappee Lit

Caged hostages of the FARC guerrillas
Last week, in an effort to get some positive publicity and remind the world that they still exist, the FARC guerrillas released six of the people they've kidnapped and held hostage (even while kidnapping other people). Wasn't that wonderful of them?

In any case, some of these freed hostages may now write books, adding to one of the world's grimmest and most unique literary genres: the 'My-Years-as-a-Guerrilla-Hostage' book. I know of more than a half dozen of these books, the most famous of them likely being those by one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and one by three U.S. contract workers with Northrop Grumman whom the FARC kidnapped after their small plane crashed while hunting for drug crops in 2003.

I've read three of these, written by very different people.

One, Secuestrada (Kidnapped) by Leszli Kalli, a young woman who was traveling with her father when the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas hijacked their plane in 1999 and forced it down in the jungle with 46 people on board. Kalli and her father spent 373 days in jungle captivity before the guerrillas released them. That was a different era, when the Colombian government was trying to reach a peace deal with the guerrilla movements, and so carried out less military action against them.

The book is touching because of Kalli's efforts to come to grips with her life and reconcile relations with her father, as well as her please for a more just Colombia. But the book also became monotonous and repetitive as the captivity dragged on and we learned more about Kalli's health troubles and other details. Still, reading the book, I couldn't help thinking about The Diary of Anne Frank, both because of the Kalli's partially-Jewish roots (she was on the first leg of a trip to Israel when the plane was hijacked) and because the book contained lots of elements of coming of age and adolescent introspection.

Fernando Araujo, ex-minister of development, was jogging in Cartagena in 2000 when the FARC guerrillas grabbed him and spirited him off to the jungle, where they held him for six years. I read his book, El Trapecista, a few years ago, and recall being impressed by the man's great discipline and determination to keep himself sane in captivity - qualities which surely helped him to escape when the opportunity arose. I didn't find this book very insightful, but it did have the exciting element of his escape, after the military bombed the guerrillas' encampment. After Araujo's escape, Pres. Uribe made him minister of foreign relations.

Another escapee, whose book I have not read, is that by police officer Jhon Pinchao, who was held by the FARC for almost nine years until he managed to escape and make an epic trek thru the jungle. (Other ex-kidnappees said that after Pinchao's escape, the FARC tightened security measures, including chaining hostages by the neck to trees.) I'd like to read his book, Mi Fuga Hacia la Libertad (My Flight to Freedom), as anybody who fights off resignation for nine years, must be an exceptional person.

The two best-known ex-kidnappee books must be 'Out of Captivity', by the three kidnapped Americans and 'Cartas a mamá desde el infierno,' (Letters to Mom from Hell) by one-time presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. I've read the Americans' book, but not Betancourt's. Both received lots of attention, both because of the authors' high public profiles and because of the Americans' negative portrayal of Betancourt. The four of them, together will 11 others, were freed by the Colombian military's July 2008 Operacion Jaque, in which the military tricked a guerrilla leader into handing over the group of hostages in the belief that they were to be taken to the top FARC leader.

What struck me most about the Americans' experience, as with the other accounts, was the sheer inhumanity of their captivity. The FARC kept them in cages or chained by the neck and often prohibited them from speaking to each other. The three generally complied with their captors' rules, but used small gestures of resistance to maintain their self respect and hope for freedom thru their years in the jungle.

An aspect of this book I enjoyed were the descriptions of the Americans' various guerrilla captors, most of whom were uneducated and some of whom wanted out of the guerrilla and expressed sympathy for the hostages. In my own personal talks with ex-guerrillas, I've found that few joined for ideological motives.

Caged FARC hostages
Also, as a critic myself of U.S. anti-drug policy, I was struck by the three Americans' failure to question the effectiveness of that policy. After all, after many years, deaths and billions of dollars invested, the illegal drug trade goes on and nefarious organizations like the FARC and paramilitaries continue profiting from it, precisely because it's illegal. Of course, it's perfectly human and understandable that men who had been so dedicated to a policy, and who made such a huge sacrifice because of it, would be unlikely to question it. Certainly, their ex-employer, Northrop Grumman, isn't likely to question a policy which brings it millions of dollars of government funding.

Once also feels grudgingly impressed by the FARC's persistence. The three Americans describe their jailers in general as an often rag-tag bunch including many maladjusted types. Yet, this group has been able to hang on for decades against the Colombian government backed by the world's richest and most militarily powerful country. Of course, if the FARC cannot be completely stamped out, it is also completely obvious that they'll never overthrow the Colombian state - so, why do they continue fighting and inflicting such suffering on their countrymen and women?

Betancourt during her bad times in captivity.
The Americans' book made headlines mostly because of its sometimes-sordid portrayal of Betancourt's alleged selfishness and collusion with their guerrilla captors.

From a purely mechanical aspect, I found the Americans' book's organization a bit confusing. The three Americans take turns recounting parts of their experience, each piece of the account lasting one or a few pages. While each section was headed by the writer's name, I generally quickly forgot whose viewpoint I was reading, altho the accounts were still interesting.

Kidnapping is a chronic nightmare for Colombia. In recent years, as the military has pushed the guerrillas into remote regions, the number of high-profile political kidnappings has dropped. But, apparently many ranchers still live in fear of the purerly economic kidnappings for ransom. The anti-kidnapping organization Pais Libre even reported recently that the number of kidnappings rose last year.

And, as long as the guerrillas continue earning millions from drug sales, they'll likely have the resources to continue kidnapping Colombians. So, unfortunately, the kidnappee literary genre is likely to keep growing.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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