Sunday, January 02, 2011

Ingrid Betancourt's Silence

By tatiana de la tierra

Weighing in at 710 pages, Ingrid Betancourt’s account of being held hostage for six years in the Colombian jungle is an engrossing read. No hay silencio que no termine (Even Silence Has an End; available in French, English and Spanish) begins with the recount of her first attempt to escape and ends with the cunning and dramatic rescue mission concocted by the Colombian military.

Of privileged Colombian stock, Betancourt spent much of her youth in Paris and attended private schools in England, France, and Colombia. With a political vein inherited from her parents, the well-educated and worldly Betancourt ventured into Colombian politics and was elected senator in 1998. She was captured by the FARC (Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces) while campaigning for president in 2002. Thanks to Operación Jaque, Betancourt was released in 2008, along with 11 Colombian military and police officers and 3 U.S. contractors.

While in captivity, Betancourt was a high profile martyr whose suffering symbolized the FARC’s inhumanity and the complex and polemical relations between the Colombian military and the guerrilleros. Massive campaigns and marches on her behalf kept her name in the spotlight as she was starving and chained to a tree in the jungle. But her popularity in Colombia and around the globe didn’t extend to some of her fellow captors, who accused her of having an extramarital affair, hoarding books, eating more than her fair share, calling in special favors, and being a bossy, spiteful, arrogant, spoiled, and dishonest princess who feigned illness so she wouldn’t have to carry her own backpack during forced marches.

No hay silencio que no termine is Betancourt’s chance to tell her side of the story. She takes us right into her world—the close connection she has with her dying father, her liberal politics, the pickup truck she was riding in when the FARC captured her, the way her mind processed the reality of being kidnapped, her induction into the jungle, her liver disease, her relationships with fellow prisoners and with her captors, her obsession with her mother’s voice on the radio, the way she celebrated her children’s birthdays, her encounters with multitudes of insects, mites, piranhas, monkeys, and much more.

Kind, quirky and cruel guerrilleros come to life in this book. Mostly, they are young and illiterate armed men and women who are also imprisoned by their organization; deserters are shot and killed. They flirt and fall in love with each other. In some cases, women are forced to partner with men of higher rank. In others, women use their sex appeal to seduce men of higher ranking so they can enjoy perks and reign over their peers. Betancourt has a knack for humanizing the guerrillas and for characterizing the commanders. Throughout her captivity, as she is taken from one encampment to another, the hands of power continuously shift. And with each commander—El “Mocho” César, Sonia, Giovanni, Sombra, Guillermo, Monster, and more—her luck also changes. One will allow her a dictionary, another will order chains tightened around her neck, another will forbid fellow captives from talking to her.

Forced to live in crowded quarters and in terrible conditions with food scarcity, inappropriate medical treatment for injuries and jungles diseases, and lack of intellectual stimulation, some of the captives turn against each other. Betancourt forms close relationships with a few, yet it’s clear that others detest her. They keep watch on her and tell on her at any opportunity. At one point, they convince the guards to kick her out of the group, but when they find out her living conditions were better than theirs, they demanded she be brought back in. Her relationship with her former campaign assistant Clara Rojas ruptures to the point that the two can barely stand each other and must be separated. And so it goes in captivity with high stakes bickering.

Painting herself as intensely emotional and desperate for affection, Betancourt clings to fellow senator “Lucho” Luis Eladio Pérez and, later on, to U.S. contractor Marc Gonsalves. Her relationships have the makings of a soap opera. After commanders forbid Betancourt and Gonsalves to talk to each other, they write each other letters and sneak them into each other’s hands. And when commanders separate Ingrid from her men, she shrinks into herself, barely eating and speaking. Later on, the letters become a bitter source of contention between Betancourt and Gonsalves.

The genre of Colombian kidnap literature consists of poorly-written accounts of incredibly dramatic stories. I’ve read books by John Pinchao, Luis Eladio Pérez, Clara Rojas, and the U.S. contractors Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes, all of whom were in captivity with Ingrid Betancourt. Of these, Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Colombian Jungle by the U.S. contractors is the best in terms of quality of writing, structure, and honesty. The three men were biting in their criticisms of their captors; Stansell and Howes particularly raged against Ingrid Betancourt in their book and continue to do so now that her book is out.

I get the feeling that, at times, Betancourt is using her book to respond to some of the allegations against her. The book hoarder, it turns out, is a passionate seeker of knowledge. She steals a radio because she will shrivel without being able to hear her mother’s messages to her on the morning radio program for kidnapped Colombians. It was somebody else who spread the rumor that the U.S. contractors were CIA agents, not her. And so on.

And while her 710-page book is packed with everything from the mundane to the melodrama of her captivity, there are a few things she barely mentions. Her husband, for instance, is snubbed in her book just as he was in real life; she hardly acknowledged him when she walked out of the military helicopter as he awaited her on the tarmac. Though she admits she’s the only one who knows the identity of Clara Rojas’ baby, she offers no clues as to who it is. She also won’t name the fellow captive who sexually harassed her. While she reveals quite a lot, she also withholds. As she said in an interview in the New York Times, “If you share certain things, they will stay alive in other people’s minds. So the most gracious and appropriate thing to do would be to let them die inside you.”

Even Silence Has an End
is a testament to the fragilities and strengths of the human spirit under incredible duress. Betancourt comes across as a survivor, not a hero or a villain. Well-written, smart and gripping, the book tops the chart in memoirs about kidnapped Colombians. And it sears the heart to know that there are still people in captivity living in unknown cruelty.


Tasha Simons said...

I love your review of Betancourt's book. I haven't read it yet as I just got it for Christmas, but I look forward to reading it. I have read the other books you mentioned (except Clara Rojas as I had trouble reading that one in Spanish... I hope to get it in English) and my favorite was the one written by the Americans you mentioned. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Querida Tatiana, yo estoy leyendo este libro precisamente ahora. Espere largamente por una copia disponible en la biblioteca, y cuando me lo entregaron en la semana de navidad, senti algo extrano, porque no era precisamente este tipo de libro el que queria leer para finalizar el ano. Pero me ha sorprendido gratamente y he disfrutado su lectura. Yo lei el de Luis Eladio Perez, escrito por un periodista es un libro que se lee con rapidez, interesante y que provee informacion valiosa, pero es mas un documento periodistico, que una memoria. El de Clara Rojas en cambio no pude terminarlo. Es un libro cristiano, escrito mas como un texto de autoayuda, que como una memoria, no pude pasar del primer capitulo. Pero en este libro en cambio me he encontrado con la voz de una escritora, y eso lo hace diferente de los otros libros, cuyos protagonistas han necesitado la asistencia de otros para escribirlos. Con el libro de Betancourt, en cambio, he podido desprenderme de la imagen que la opinion publica ha construido de ella, y he podido entrar en su universo literario, sin prejuicios. Yo estoy leyendo la version en ingles, traducida del frances. Encuentro, si que algunas expresiones, en la traduccion no se escuchan bien. Pero el ingles es mi segunda lengua tambien. Gracias por escribir esta resena, es distinta, y es honesta. Me gusto mucho, un abrazo, Freda

tatiana de la tierra said...

Freda, pienso que Ingrid tiene alma en sus palabras y esa es gran parte de la razón que el libro es bueno. Los gringos lo que hacen es quejarse. Uno de ellos (Keith) es tan pesado que hasta me costo leerlo. Ese es el mismo que todavia anda en contra de ella. Dice que ella y Marc son pareja ahora, entre otras cosas, lo cual me parece una historia de amor tremenda. Yo logre identificarme con ella mientras que contaba su experiencia en el libro. Sin embargo, eso no me paso con ningunos de los otros libros.

ThePhoenix said...

I loved Ingrid's book, I couldn't put it down, reading into the wee hours of the morning many times. She has such a unique writing style, she took me into the jungle with her. Transported by her words I felt the dampness, smelled the decaying underbrush and heard the cries of various jungle creatures. I could see the faces and gestures of her captors and fellow prisoners. I felt her pain, her anguish and her resolve. I was there, she, very eloquently, took me there. When I finished the book, I too, felt freed.

Veronica del C. Urzua A. said...

Al principo encontre que I.B. era muy
sobervia y despreciativa y tenia una actitud de superioridad frente a los otros secuestrados. Pero me fue envolviendo el relato de los dias y anos en la selva y casi podia sentir la naturaleza a mi alrededor.Eso es lo que mas rescato del libro , la fuerza que tiene para llegar a uno. Lo que no me convencio es la actitud de "victima" como si solo ella hubiese pasado por lo peor.Entiendo que yo no podria soportar algo como eso ni un dia, pero siempre es muy "yo" antes que nada.
El libro es bueno y desperto mi interes por leer la contraparte de Clara rojas.
Veronica Urzua,(Chilena viviendo en Canada).