Betancourt finally opens up about her six years in jungle captivity

Memoir tells of beatings from Colombian guerrillas and breakdown of friendship with fellow captive
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The Independent Online

Ingrid Betancourt, once the world's most pitied and celebrated jungle hostage, has spoken in detail for the first time about her six-and-a-half years as a captive of Colombian guerrillas. In a voluminous book, published yesterday, the Franco-Colombian politician, 49, describes how she was humiliated, beaten and sexually assaulted by the ultra-leftist Farc guerrillas (Revolutionary Colombian Armed Forces), but managed to cling to her sanity and to her sense of identity.

In earlier books, written by fellow hostages, Ms Betancourt has been accused of arrogance and selfishness while in captivity. She became deeply unpopular in her native country in June after asking for $7m (£4.5m) in compensation from the Colombian government.

Even some of the people who campaigned for her release have been angered by her allegedly erratic behaviour since she regained her freedom in a Colombian military sting operation in July 2008.

In her 677-page book, written over a 15-month period, Ms Betancourt does not answer these criticisms directly, but admits many errors and failings. The book, Même le silence a une fin, (Even silence comes to an end) has been hailed in the French press as "beautifully written" and "poetic". Le Monde said that it often reads like an "extraordinary adventure story". The largest French book chain, FNAC, displayed the book yesterday in its "literature" section.

Ms Betancourt, who was the Green candidate in a Colombian presidential election when she was captured in February 2002, has refused until now to talk of her treatment at the hands of the Farc. Her book begins with a 40-page, almost minute-by-minute, account of her fifth, and final, escape attempt in December 2002, which ends with a punitive beating and sexual assault by three Farc guerrillas.

"I fell into an inert darkness, losing all sense of time," she writes. "I knew that my body was the object of their violent acts. Their voices echoed around me, as if in a tunnel."

She survived this and other beatings and humiliations, she said, partly through religious faith and partly through clinging to a conviction that "identity" and "self-respect" were more important than degradation or death.

In a book published last year, Out of Captivity, three American fellow hostages – Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes – accused Ms Betancourt of demanding better treatment than other captives because of her social and political standing in Colombia. They say that she wheedled and manipulated her way to more than a fair share of the limited food, clothing and living space allocated by the Farc.

Mr Stansell said: "I can get over just about anything, but I don't know about Ingrid. Forgive? Yes. Move on? Yes. Respect? No."

Ms Betancourt's friend and campaign helper, Clara Rojas, who was kidnapped with her, made similar criticisms in her book, Captive. In her own long-awaited account, Ms Betancourt makes several counter-allegations. She says that Ms Rojas asked for formal permission from Farc leaders to have the baby to which she gave birth in captivity. The baby was taken from Ms Rojas by the Farc, but later restored to her, after a maternity test, by the Colombian authorities.

Earlier this week, Ms Rojas dismissed Ms Betancourt's allegation – and its implication of collaboration with the guerrillas – as a "spiteful lie".

In her book, Ms Betancourt says one of the worst aspects of jungle life was having to put up with her fellow captives. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, without citing him, she suggests that hell is other people. Her relationship with Clara Rojas, she says, broke down very quickly through arguments over food, space and failed escape attempts.

She says at one point she caught Ms Rojas sneaking an extra portion of their precious jointly owned lump of cheese. Unlike her, she suggests, Ms Rojas decided early on to cooperate with the Farc rather than maintain her own "identity". On the other hand, Ms Betancourt acknowledges, other hostages had a right to resent the fact that international concern – glimpsed through newspaper cuttings or heard on radio bulletins – focused almost entirely on her fate as a captive politician with joint French and Colombian nationality.

Among the most interesting passages in the book are descriptions of the Farc insurgents, some of whom would sometimes break out of their ideological prison and act like ordinary people, she says. Women guerrillas danced "with extraordinary femininity" and treasured the elaborate under-clothes beneath their camouflage trousers.

At one point, Jessica, the official girlfriend of a rebel leader, asks Ingrid to teach her English. She boasts that Farc women are treated with equality and respect. After the lessons suddenly end, Jessica admits her man has punished her for a quarrel by setting fire to her English exercise book.