Colombia is poised to end 52 years of civil war. Ahead of the peace treaty between the government and FARC guerrillas, ex-hostage Ingrid Betancourt speaks exclusively to DW about reconciliation and the chance for peace.
She was kidnapped by Colombian guerrillas and held captive for six years in the jungle. Since her rescue in July, 2008, she has been pushing for an end to the civil war in her country. A few days before the signing of the peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels on September 26th, DW reporter Astrid Prange met her in Paris, her second home. She appeared calm, friendly and strong-minded, but even in this moment full of hope, the hostage drama and politics still determine her life.
DW: What was your first thought when your heard about peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC rebels in 2012?
Ingrid Betancourt: We were not really surprised by the news. But even though we were expecting it, when it happened I found myself very emotional. I remember I went to the Basilica of Sacre Coeur to give thanks, and it was amazing because I found so many other Colombians doing the same. We had some hours of just celebrating, hugging and crying.
What helped you get through the suffering of captivity?
My mother's voice through the radio waves was my biggest kind of safety net. It kept me thinking that I was a human being, that I was loved, and that was important. In the jungle, faith also became something very real; it helped me to understand what was happening to me and changed my questions. In the beginning, I asked: why me? But then, it changed to: How can I make the best of this? How can I be a better person? How can I understand what I am here to learn? That wouldn't have been possible without faith. If you don't think that God is there, and that there is a reason, even if you don't understand it, you are enticed to slip away to bitterness and revenge.
During all these years in the jungle were you afraid that you might never be released?
I remember guards telling me that I wouldn't be free before being a grandmother. It tortured me in a sense that I was calculating how old my daughter was, my son, and what that meant in terms of time; emotionally, it was really very painful. But I always thought I would be back home some day. Sometimes home was even dying because it was a way of getting away from the control of the guerilla, a form of liberation. But when I was rescued - because it was so sudden and there was no way that we could foresee that this was going to happen - the emotion was enormous.
Do you think that the peace treaty between the Colombian government and FARC rebels takes in consideration sufficiently the suffering of the victims?
What is sufficient? Nothing is sufficient. In my own case, what could be justice for me? Nothing! How to replace the people I missed? My father was gone while I was in captivity. How to replace the years without my children? So I don't think that this is the right question.
What would be the right question then?
For me, the right question to ask and to answer is: Why are we doing this? I think, we are doing this, so that no other Colombian in the future will suffer what we have suffered. We have the right answer because we are saving lives. We are saving traumas, we are saving families - and we are giving to Colombians the opportunity of being a country at peace. In my generation, we have never experienced what that means. As a Colombian, the only way I can relate to my country, is through suffering. I hope that my children and my grandchildren will relate to the beautiful country in a way that it is positive and loving.
The Colombian people will be asked in a referendum if they agree with the peace treaty. Why? Are there many people against it?
On one hand, it seems strange that a country that has suffered so much from violence and war, would be debating if they want peace or not. But in Colombia, a part of society is deeply connected with the war as a means of making a living. So you have the business of war that enriches many people, you have the politics of war that give power to many leaders, and you have corruption which depends on the war. The people, who vote “no” are not able to say that they want the war to continue, because they are making money. So they have to use other arguments, and that is what's happening.
The Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos was considered to be a hardliner. He wanted to defeat FARC with military means. Now, he will be signing a peace treaty with them. What has made him change his mind?
Juan Manuel dos Santos was a hardliner indeed, but he is a leader with a reflection on the history of Colombia. And he understood that because the initial chiefs of FARC have died - Manuel Marulanda, Raul Reyes, Alfonso Cano - and were replaced by people that were younger, that didn't have the same military skills, they were open to a political solution. He seized the opportunity with a counterpart that was willing to negotiate peace.
Did you get to know him?
Yes, very much!
Did you convince him to change his mind?
No! I think he really was convinced that this was the way to go. And I can only applaud, because there are so many forces in place that the war continues, endless! I think he is brave and courageous. If he succeeds in his plan, he will be the Colombian that we will remember in history.
It seems that most of the victims, like you, are calling for reconciliation. Can you speak for the majority of them?
Forgiveness is a VERY personal and intimate thing. Forgiveness is not something that you can speak for others because it includes not only your desire and will, your reflection and intellect, but also your emotions. And who is in control of one's own emotions? I am still struggling with mine! So even though I committed myself to forgive, I understand perfectly that other victims are unable to do so. Depending on your suffering and the way you deal with it, sometimes it is impossible to forgive.
Do you think that there is a real chance of integrating the FARC rebels back into society? Can they make a living in peace time? Or will they be hired by the drug cartels?
This is the big challenge we have as a society. The Colombians are asked to receive these people of the FARC that are going to give up their arms and be demobilized. They must be able to pursue an activity that is dignifying, that they can live legally, out of misery and poverty. The previous examples similar to this situation are the case of the paramilitaries. And it was kind of a fiasco because some leaders were extradited and the outcome of these extraditions was not very clear because they ended paying less time in jail than they would have been paying in Colombia. More than that: Many people of the paramilitary organizations just changed the label and became crime organizations linked with the drug business and other illegal activities. Their presence disrupts peoples' security even today in Colombia.
You have always been involved in politics. Are you are thinking about running for president in the next election?
(laughing) Not at all! I have never thought about running for the presidency, nor for a mandate in parliament.
There is no plan of going back to Colombian politics, even if President Santos would ask you?
No. It doesn't mean that I won't. But things can change. I don't have a crystal ball, so I can never say never. If President Santos would ask me, I would come, naturally. But there are other determining factors that make an answer to this question very complicated.