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Months as a Hostage

Interview: José Ospina-Valencia (th)January 4, 2008

Ulrich Künzel was kidnapped by Colombian guerillas in 2001 while working on German development projects. He talked to DW-WORLD.DE about his time in captivity and the ongoing Colombian hostage situation.

Colombian rebels hold guns
Colombian rebels are holding over 200 hostagesImage: AP

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) currently has some 200 hostages. This includes French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, three American citizens and an approximately three-year-old child, who was born from a relationship between a hostage and a guerrilla soldier. The latest rescue deal fell apart on Dec. 31.

Ulrich Künzel, his brother, Thomas, and their mutual friend, Reiner Bruchmann, were kidnapped in 2001. Künzel was held by the FARC for three months before being released.

Refugees from Bojaya, Colombia,escaped clashes between Colombian paramilitary forces and guerrillas
The armed conflict has displaced millionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

DW-WORLD.DE: How must it have been for the hostages, who thought they were about to be released, to have the deal crumble at the last minute?

Ulrich Künzel: I can imagine that the hostages must feel terribly disappointed. They must feel extreme stress in not knowing whether they will be set free or not. I know from experience that once you have heard that a release is planned, the time in captivity starts to feel even longer.

What happened to you on July 18, 2001?

I was traveling to visit a development project in the Cauca region in south-western Colombia. My brother and my friend were also in the car when a group of armed men blocked the route and took us away. At first we didn't know who the kidnappers were.

Ulrich Künzel at a press conference after his release
Ulrich Künzel, center, was held for three monthsImage: picture-alliance / dpa/dpaweb

After about three weeks, we heard on the radio a high commander of the FARC say the group was responsible for the kidnappings.

How important was it to keep up with the news?

The radio was very important. We heard soccer results of the Bundesliga on Deutsche Welle as well as news. It was our only link to the outside world.

It was extremely important. I was held hostage for three months and during that time didn't have a single thing to read. The radio was the only medium that was available to find out about things that were happening.

During the time we were held hostage, the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks occurred. I first saw the pictures of it in November, but thanks to the radio, we heard ourselves what had happened in New York and Washington.

Why did the FARC target you for kidnapping?

Demonstration for the release of Ingrid Betancourt
French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt is the most famous hostageImage: AP

This much is clear: they actually only wanted to kidnap me as they knew that I was working in the area. My brother and my friend were tragically mixed up in it because the guerrilla group couldn't keep us apart during the kidnapping.

I was travelling in south-western Colombia where we were overseeing many small development projects. There were places that I could only travel to with the FARC's permission. So the guerrillas knew that I was there. But they couldn't imagine what kind of work I was doing. During my captivity, I had to describe for the FARC all of the development work Germany was doing.

It appears that the guerrillas were afraid that Germany wanted to give covert military aid to Colombia. Subsequently they demanded that Germany negotiate development work directly with the FARC and not with the government.

The FARC wanted to be considered an institution of progress and development?

You could say that. But in the meantime, the policies of President Alvaro Uribe have significantly limited the area where FARC is active. In 2001, you couldn't say the Colombian government had a presence in all parts of the country. There were many communities where there were absolutely no police

Has the situation improved?

Today the people can use country roads again, people can go on vacation. The number of kidnappings has fallen sharply. While the problems of the FARC remain, the situation in Colombia has improved considerably in the last five years.

What are the root causes of the problems in Colombia?

From the beginning, and still today, there exists in Colombia enormous injustice and a continuously growing gap between rich and poor. The FARC uses the social inequality as a pretext for its power interests. The FARC wants to seize political power in the name of the poor.

An airplane waits on the tarmac for the exact location where the FARC was supposed to release hostages
A recent rescue deal failedImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

I don't see a clear political project anymore behind the FARC. I see only propaganda and a survival by means of money that comes from the drug trade, extortion and other sources. The majority of Colombians don't want to eliminate injustice with violence.

What would you say to people who are currently being held hostage?

I would say that they must do everything possible to persevere. They must do everything possible to keep busy, even if it's by playing simple games. They must read, if it's possible. They must keep their minds intact. That is the only advice I can give the hostages.

After returning from Colombia you started an Internet site with the domain farc.de. What do you hope to accomplish?

On that site there's information, notices and news, in German, that deal with the problem of the kidnapping industry. We want to make a small contribution with it here in the German speaking world. We want to prevent the erroneous belief that the FARC is a liberation movement fighting against a dictator.

Colombia is a country with great inequalities, but Colombia is not a dictatorship. It is a fairytale and myth to say that they are fighting against a dictatorship.

Many leftists in Europe -- less so since Green politician Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped -- believed that the FARC was fighting for a just cause in a country ruled by oppression. We want to inform the public about the real situation in Colombia in which the FARC are kidnappers and the country, for all its faults, is democratic.