Mellissa Fung: I keep remembering the moment – the moment you’re grabbed. Do you remember it? Is it still vivid in your mind?
Ingrid Betancourt: When I was captured? It’s – I can smell.
Fung: What does it smell like?
Betancourt: Um…oil. They were going to set a bus on fire. They were throwing gas on – the bus. They were going to light it. And there was the sound of bomb. It was very hot.
Fung: You can see it like it was yesterday.
Fung: How did it happen?
Betancourt: It happened very quick. It was something I was just thinking was impossible to happen. And when it happened, I actually saw the guerrillas and we were surrounded by them, and I though okay, they’re coming for me. The only thing I wanted – there were other people with me in the car – I wanted to tell them not to worry. It will be okay. But I was – I was – I didn’t know what could happen, but I knew it could turn very bad.
Fung: Were you scared? I remember not feeling scared, but sort of, you know, out of my body?
Betancourt: Yes, it’s the same sensation, its like you’re seeing things from the outside. I was very much under control I think, but perhaps because it was a very stressful moment. So I remember I was like, very sharp. And I don’t think I was scared. I think I got scared afterwards. But at that moment, I was trying to make things less dangerous as possible. Just keep everything quiet because – anything could happen. The guys were very excited, they had guns, and I knew whatever we could do – they could have shot us. It was – an accident – or whatever – could happen.
Fung: So then they took you into the jungle.
Betancourt: Yes. It took many days, weeks, to get to the heart of the jungle, because we were in an area – the countryside – so we were may days heading into the jungle.
Fung: Was there a moment when you realized – when it hit you that you were a hostage. That you may never get out?
Betancourt: The second day when – after lunch – I was talking with the people there and then I thought oh my god. What if this will be longer than I think? At the beginning I thought it was going to be hours, then I thought it was going to be days, then I thought probably it could be months, and it could be more than months. And that was the moment I realized it was bad. Very bad.
Fung: I remember the first few days, I felt a lot of guilt. I could imagine that my mother, my father, my friends, were all so worried and scared. Was that the same for you?
Betancourt: Oh yes. I felt very guilty. Because I – my father was very ill. And I didn’t want to do that trip. It was something I didn’t want to do. But at the same time I had people waiting for me. And I had said that I was going to go. And it was a very difficult moment for the crisis – because the peace talks had broke. And my friends were in the city where the peace talks were held and they were so frightened that they were going to be attacked by the others that were going to take revenge because they had sponsored in a way – those peace talks – and those peace talks were very much criticized, and there were enemies of those peace talks, especially the paramilitary in Colombia. And they were very frightened.
I thought if I went there, I could be like a shield for them. And that because I had some kind of attention of the media, then they would be protected. And so thought it was my job to go there, because when I needed them, they were there for me. So I had to be there. And I never thought the guerrillas could kidnap me. In fact, because 10 days before, I had been with all the commanders of the FARC.
Fung: You had met with them?
Betancourt: Yes. And we had talked. And you know, you have the impression that if you meet somebody, they cannot harm you. I mean, it – I was very, very surprised when the commander said, I have talked to the chiefs of the guerrillas and you’re going to stay here. Because I thought – this guy has taken me, it’s an error. He’s going to release me in a couple hours when he talks to the commanders they will say let her go. That was my thought – when they said that I was staying, then I understood that it was another plan, that they had me for those things they were doing for the exchange, and I realized I was in a bad moment, in a bad place.
Fung: Your father passed away.
Betancourt: My father died exactly a month after my abduction. And I always thought that when my father would pass away, I would be with him, holding his hand, and helping him to leave this life to the other life. The impression that I would be his companion 'til the last moment. So when my father died, I was very angry. To everybody and especially to God. Because I thought it wasn’t fair.
Fung: You found out when you were in captivity.
Betancourt: I found out in a very cruel way because they – when my father died, everybody asked for my release. As a way of solidarity. And those messages were on the radio. So they shut the radios and there was no radio for a month in that camp. And when I would ask, they would say, there’s no more batteries. And I realized that my father was dead – like a month and a half later and it was – I found out just because there was a newspaper – an old newspaper – they had brought some vegetables, which was kind of rare, and those vegetables were wrapped in the newspaper. And there was nothing to eat and I asked permission to keep those newspapers to see if I could read something. And I remember unrolling the newspapers and laying them out flat to be able to read them, and there was this picture of a priest and he was looking sad. He was very sad looking and I was just curious why this priest was looking sad somewhere and I read the caption. And it was saying that this priest was very sad because Gabriel Betancourt was dead. And he was looking at his casket. And so I couldn’t believe it was my father. I said, no it wasn’t. It’s the wrong spelling. It’s impossible. It was him.
Fung: What was your relationship like with your captors?
Betancourt: It was fluctuant. Because sometimes I had one person that was human. And it was like a gift. But mostly, they were trained to be very cold, cruel. They were I think brainwashed in a way. They were telling them we were enemies. And I think I was a symbol of what their enemy was. I was a politician. They hated politicians. I was a person with some education. They had none, so they thought I was a privileged social background, and they hated me for that. I was a woman, and they don’t like women, it’s a very machoist culture. They think women are manipulating. And I was French and Colombian, so I was a very strange thing. So they hated me. So they treated me accordingly.
Fung: I want to talk to you about what it’s like to be a woman in that situation. Because I – one thing that really bothered me was that I never had any privacy. There was always a man – in that very small space – even when I went to the bathroom. Was that the same for you?
Betancourt: I think that in the jungle, I understood that some women feel the need to be covered and veiled. I felt sometimes like that. I wanted to cover myself. All of me, to just be protected. I think it’s very hard. I think that being a prisoner is very hard. But being a prisoner – a woman – among men is very very hard. You're – it’s like – to be a prisoner twice, or three times more.
Fung: You were a prisoner with other people. You were held with other people. They were all men too. Can you talk about your relationships with them? Did it help to have other people there? Sometimes I wished that there was someone else with me so I could have someone to talk to.
Betancourt: The relationships between prisoners were hard. Was difficult. I have incredible relationships with some of them and very hard relationships with others. There were guys there who were also difficult.
Fung: Like these Americans who wrote a book saying you were their enemy. I don’t understand how people in that situation can turn on each other.
Betancourt: I was surprised the way everything came out. Because I think it was one guy that spoke in a way. It’s the way he is. But then there were others saying the opposite. I remember one of my fellow hostages – one of the Americans – that I really liked very, very much – he tried all he could to say I don’t agree with this, this is not true, but nobody would listen to him. Because it was like – you know – somebody saying something bad, so let’s go and hear. You know it was – so I think that it was difficult for all of us. I think that we all had difficult moments. But for me, I would just like to keep in my heart the good things that everybody had at one point or another.
Fung: Do you still keep in touch with them?
Betancourt: Yes, I keep in touch with almost all of them. Four of my companions are in France at the moment, because France was being very supportive, and we managed to bring them to France to study. So I talk to them all the time. I have others in Colombia and I speak to them, I would say, twice a week. It’s my family, you know? With the Americans too. One of them is one of my closest, closest friends. I talk to him every day. He was very upset with what happened. He couldn’t do anything. In a way – it was like a cannibalism. It’s better not to be a cannibal.
Fung: You said there are things that need to left in the jungle, that you won’t talk about anymore. And I’m the same. There are things that I’m leaving in the hole and never going to talk about. But it must still haunt you.
Betancourt: Yes. Yes. Of course it does.
Betancourt: Do you have nightmares?
Betancourt: I do too.
Fung: How often?
Betancourt: It’s less and less but before it was every night. Now it’s becoming like every week. Do you have like, the impression that when you wake up, you don’t know where you are?
Betancourt: Yes, it happens to me. Or there are sounds that make you – upset you.
Fung: Sounds. When I hear the call to prayer, because I could hear it all the time – I’ m in North America, so I don’t hear it all the time, but when I do on television – it – I get –
Betancourt: Yes, your body reacts even though you know it’s nothing?
Fung: Yes, I’m talking about it now and I can feel the –
Betancourt: Yes, yes. I have exactly the same. The physical reaction to something I know – for me, it’s the helicopters. When I hear the helicopter, I just – my body changes. I begin to sweat, I have to go to the bathroom, I’m bad. I’m really feeling sick. Even though I know it’s a parade or – yes. I think it will erase. Little by little. Time.
Fung: I want to talk about what you’re wearing on your wrist.
Betancourt: This is my rosary. I made it in the jungle. The year after my abduction. And it has been on my wrist since then. It’s funny because when I made it, I didn’t know how to pray the rosary. I didn ’t know how it functions, (laughs) so I had this image of my father praying the rosary. I was thinking, how many beads are there? 10 or 15 or 20? I didn’t know. So I said okay. I’m going to do it with 15. it’s better more than less. And we were in a camp with other prisoners and there was this girl that I adored. Her name was Gloria. She was the one who teach me how to pray, so when I found out there were only 10, I put this little thing, because at night, when I was praying.
Fung: Did you fall asleep praying?
Betancourt: The first year I didn’t sleep at all. Did you sleep? You couldn’t sleep right?
Fung: No, but see, I have mine. I had it in my pocket with me the whole time…..
Fung: What were you thinking when you were praying? Did you think he wasn’t listening? That God wasn’t listening to you? I know I did.
Betancourt: You did? No, no. Wait a second. I was praying through the concept of Mary. It’s a strange thing and it’s going to sound very stupid what I’m going to say. In a way, I thought he was too busy to listen to me. Has too many things to take care of. So please, Mary, help me. So I was praying, asking Mary.
Fung: I prayed to Mary too.
Betancourt: She was like my – and then I also thought that when I was praying, I had to make the effort to communicate – that it was me who had to make the effort, so in a sense, what I wanted to achieve was to concentrate in a way that I could only think of him, so I would think that if I only thought of Jesus, he would understand that I wanted to talk to him. And I also knew that I could ask him so many things. I wanted him every day, something different.
Fung: What were you asking?
Betancourt: For everything. Please, let me be in a place where there are no ants and bugs. Please, I would like to have a bigger piece of bread tomorrow. Please don’t let this guy sit behind me because he’s going to be annoying me all night long. Please – those kind of things. And then it came to a moment when I said, you know God, you know what I need, so please do what you want but do it quick. Please let me know what you want so I can just accept and do it quick. Please - six years.
Fung: You never had a crisis in faith?
Betancourt: Not in faith but I was really really mad at him when my father died. And for a year, I was really mad. And then when the year passed by, then I suddenly realized that it was a blessing that my father was gone. Because I thought, oh my god, I’m so glad he’s not living now because my mother is going through hell. At least he’s in heaven now. I can talk to him directly now. But then my concern was for my mother.
Fung: Do you think your faith has changed?
Betancourt: Oh yes.
Betancourt: I have the absolute security that he’s there for me. Absolute. And I trust in him completely. I don’t care anymore in big things or little things. I think he takes care of everything. I just try to be what I think he wants me to be. He wants too much from me. And I’m just this big. I have this peace in me.
Fung: You have peace.
Fung: Is that because you forgave? You talked about forgiveness.
Betancourt: Oh yes. I forgive everything. And sometimes - I was talking to my mother about forgiveness today – sometimes it’s easier to forgive the enemy than friends, you know? Or family. But I have done that too. I forgave everybody. Because I can understand why people don’t like me. Sometimes I understand that, you know, there are people that like you and people that don’t and sometimes you can understand why they don’t. Because they think something and you have not had the opportunity to show them better. I think that God will give me the opportunity to show them I’m not exactly what they think I am.
Fung: So you have peace. You’re not carrying any anger or resentment or anything like that?
Batencourt: No, because I want to help. I think that the guys that did wrong to me – they are probably very sad in their hearts and so if I could do something to help them get out of that I will. So that’s why I’m working on this foundation.
Fung: Tell me about that.
Batencourt: Well – it’s a beautiful idea, very simple. I think freedom is something we need to be dignified of humans, there are all kind of freedoms. But of course, freedom of being able to do what you want to do. I think that those guys were more prisoners than I was when I was abducted. My guards. I’m here today. They’re trapped there. They will never be able to get out of that organization unless they are killed or the escape and if they escape it’s going to be terrible for their families because the guerrillas will take revenge.
I want to help them. There was one guerrilla that escaped with one of my fellow hostages, so we went through all we had to do – heaven and earth – to get them to France. Him and his girlfriend. And now they’re safe. They’re learning French, and France has been very good in that sense. I had to really – there’s been a lot of generosity and I know that here you have a good heart in Canada – generosity too – have many friends of mine that have been like refugees here in Canada.
Fung: What’s next for you? Are you going to go back to Colombia?
Batencourt: Someday perhaps. Not now. But someday, perhaps yes.
Fung: There are a lot of people back there who think you should pick up where you left off – campaigning for president.
Batencourt: What God wants. Whatever he wants, he will show the way.
Fung: What do you think you’ve learned about yourself? And about human nature?
Batencourt: You really begin to understand a little of what you are after many many years of abduction. In a way, you are resistant. Because you think you cannot change. And once you see what you are and you accept that what you are is not what you ’d like to see, then you accept to change and then – then you’re beginning to grow. So I think that’s something we can all do. But I think also we have to understand that suffering, or difficulties, or problems in life are always a huge opportunity for spiritual growth - and we have to grab it. We cannot just say, it’s not for me to hate everybody for that. We have to just accept, which is difficult, and say, what can I learn from here? And learn quick.
Fung: What have you learned?
Batencourt: I have learned lots of things. I have learned that I can change. That it’s nice to change. That it’s very very difficult. Something that’s a discipline. You know when you decide, I’m going to lose some pounds and I’m going to work out, and you have the discipline and finally you see the results, well in a spiritual way, it’s something like that but it’s harder. Because you have always a tendency to remake your reactions and you have to control those reactions because you have to focus on the good attitude and not the bad. Because sometimes our reactions are the bad attitude. So we need to change the way we react to things, the way we talk to people, the way we are. And it changes also our character. And we always think that we are made like this, and people have to bear us like this – no, we can change and people don’t have to cope with our terrible things that we try to hide. We can change that.
Fung: Did you learn it while you were in captivity or have you come to see that now?
Batencourt: I learned it the rough way in captivity and it was for me, very important to change certain things because I could see my companions in captivity doing something I would say – oh that’s horrible – but I was doing the same. There are things I react the same in other things, but actually, I’m doing the same. So I had to change there and then here, in freedom – it’s always a struggle to give the best of you and sometimes there are people who specialize in digging and pushing you to be the bad part of you and you feel the bad in you coming out and you have to stop and say no, I’ve learned my lesson. So I think it’s an endless path to perfection.
Fung: Do you think you’re a better person now?
Batencourt: I think I’m a better person but I’m not as I would like to be I mean, there are many many things I still have to work out but definitely I’m better than what I was before. In my concepts in my principles it doesn’t mean anything. It just – inside of me – it’s not something I would say – I’m not better – I have much still to work on me. Much. But the good thing is that I know what I want to change I have a good model to follow.
Fung: Do you have any physical reminders?
Batencourt: I had a – because of the chain, I had something built up here (points to neck). And I thought I could live with it, you know, okay, it’s going to be there. And one day I decided no more, because every time I touch it, I’m back in the jungle. So one day – surgery – so it’s gone.
Batencourt: It’s so nice to share with you all this.