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'Even Silence Has an End': From Candidate to Rebel Captive

Hector Tobar
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
Ingrid Betancourt

This is an unforgettable epic of moral courage and human endurance.

Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle

Publisher: Penguin
Length: 544 pages
Author: Ingrid Betancourt
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-09

Through the bars of a cage built in the jungle, Ingrid Betancourt watched her kidnappers dig a nine-foot-deep pit. She believed it would be her grave.

Instead, Betancourt was tossed inside, very much alive. Her laughing captors, members of the leftist Colombian guerrilla group known as the FARC, then placed bets on whether the 42-year-old mother of two would have the strength and moxie to find a way out.

That story, like so many in Even Silence Has an End, Betancourt's riveting account of her six years in FARC captivity, ends with a strange and poignant twist. Betancourt emerges from the rebel camp's new cesspool laughing and triumphant, and wins the respect of a group of female guerrillas. Those teenage girls, armed with submachine guns, later join her in making Christmas decorations, including a nativity scene she fashions from the clay mud of the pit.

"We had somehow become a family, and as is the case with real families, we hadn't chosen each other," Betancourt writes of herself, her captors and her fellow hostages. Later, the male guerrilla leaders who dominated that "family" would subject Betancourt to increasingly cruel acts of degradation, including two years bound in heavy chains.

Born in a privileged Colombian family and raised in France, Betancourt was the presidential candidate of a small, anti-corruption, pro-environment Colombian political party when she was kidnapped in 2002. She had boldly — or foolishly, some would say — decided to bring her campaign to FARC-controlled territory. Even Silence Has an End is an unforgettable epic of moral courage and human endurance.

Betancourt the candidate had fashioned herself as the conscience of Colombia's political class. As a hostage she was no different, pestering a series of rebel commanders and guards as they marched her from one rebel camp in the jungle to the next. "Human rights," one guerrilla spits back at her, "are a bourgeois concept."

Even Silence Has an End is remarkable for its mastery of several classic narrative forms. For starters, it's a tense, psychologically taut prison memoir. Then it becomes a woman-centered critique of Colombia's culture of political violence, as Betancourt is forced to observe, at close quarters, the demented, cocaine-funded movement the FARC has become.

Female guerrillas tell her sorrowful tales of forced "romances" with FARC leaders. The commanders speak of their humble beginnings in Colombian slums — and then boast of a mythical cave where the FARC is said to have hidden millions of dollars in drug profits.

But Even Silence Has an End is also an adventure story as Betancourt repeatedly attempts to escape through the Amazonian rain forest. Sometimes alone, and sometimes with fellow captives, she enters a "labyrinth of chlorophyll" where monkeys migrate on the treetops and red-eyed crocodiles swim in the rivers. The drama of these desperate treks for freedom rivals anything in that other great memoir written by a survivor of a South American tropical prison, Papillon, Henry Charriere's tale of his escape from Devil's Island.

Through it all Betancourt never fails to marvel in the weird beauty of the landscape that surrounds her. She leaves her wet boots to dry in the sun, and they're covered by a swarm of bees that leave them smelling like honey. When she tries the same thing with her underwear, ants devour and carry all the fabric away, one tiny piece of cotton at a time.

But more than anything, Even Silence Has an End is an account of one woman's struggle to avoid the "hibernation of my soul" as the prisoner of men who openly despised her. Against all odds, Betancourt leaves the jungle with the same principles with which she entered it: above all, a deep belief in compassion and human justice.

"Having lost my freedom and, with it, everything that mattered to me... I still had the most important freedom of all," she writes. "That was the freedom to choose the kind of person I wanted to be."

Were it not for the continuing controversy surrounding its author, Even Silence Has an End would likely be celebrated as one of the greatest Latin American memoirs ever written, a distinction it thoroughly deserves.

This July, however, two years after her rescue by the Colombian army — in an operation recounted breathlessly at the end of her book — Betancourt announced she would seek millions in compensation and damages from the Colombian government for failing to protect her during her 2002 presidential campaign.

Betancourt did that because holding the government accountable is the right thing to do. But to most Colombians this looked like a greedy and ungrateful act, and it effectively ended her political career.

Being stubborn and frank made Betancourt a resilient hostage and compelling witness to her own ordeal. Those same qualities, unfortunately, also make her a lousy politician.


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