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Postcards from Europe

Postcard from Europe: Betancourt book sparks controversy in France

Former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt spent years as a prisoner in the country's jungle. Now she has released a highly criticized book about it, as John Laurenson reports in this postcard from Paris.

Ingrid Betancourt

It took Betancourt 18 months to write about her captivity

It was a photo that went around the world: Ingrid Betancourt, frail, pale and thin, her hair down to her waist, her eyes lowered in submission like a latter-day Joan of Arc. The snapshot of the French-Colombian politician taken by her captors in the middle of the jungle is a moving one, which redoubled the activity of her support groups, especially among politicians, journalists and actors in France.

Betancourt in captivity

The FARC rebels released this picture of Betancourt in captivity

Betancourt was kidnapped in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) of Colombia while campaigning as a candidate for a political formation called Green Oxygen to become president of the country.

Her memoir "Even Silence Has an End" tells us what happened over the next six-and-a-half years. There were mosquitoes and snakes, humiliations meted out by her guards. She writes of her faith that buoyed her up and her wonderment at the beauty of the jungle. But there was also her collapsing health, malaria and meager diet - the meals of flour and, if she was lucky, monkey meat. Towards the end of her ordeal, her fervent Catholic faith abandoned her, causing the steep decline of hope and her gradual slipping towards death.

She describes how, on five occasions, she escaped - only to be stopped by the enormous and hostile jungle and captured again. And she makes it clear she was sexually abused by her guards. The book was handwritten, as if, perhaps, she were still denying herself the luxury of a computer in the world of celebrity, wealth and freedom she has returned to. She told French media that she had intended to write in Spanish but ultimately found the experience too painful, and turned to French, the language she was schooled in.

Critical voices

But reactions by Betancourt's fellow hostages have soured the book's international release this week. Her presidential running-mate Clara Rojas has sharply criticized the book, saying it contains "lies and spite." Rojas had a baby in 2006 while being held captive but, she says, she did not request to have the child in captivity as Betancourt claims in her book.

John Laurenson

DW's John Laurenson reviews Betancourt's moving account

"How dare she insinuate something like that without evidence," Rojas said. In fact, she says, Betancourt suggested she should hand her son Manuel over to the rebels and forget about him.

Other former hostages who spent time in captivity alongside Betancourt have also spoken out against her, calling her arrogant. Her estranged husband Juan Carlos Lecompte has filed for divorce, citing her infidelity. Her recent request for millions of dollars in compensation from the Colombian government, which she later withdrew, has brought her further disapproval. Nonetheless, "Even Silence Has an End" shows that she is also capable of self-criticism.

"I wasn't sensitive enough to understand their despair," she writes of the other hostages who did not have her celebrity status. "I saw myself as a symbol that could be useful for all of us. I did not understand that everyone needs to have a face."

Author: John Laurenson
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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