Following her rescue from a remote Colombian rebel camp last week, Ingrid Betancourt has returned to Paris, forever changed. Prior to her 2002 capture by Colombian rebels who made her into their most valuable bargaining chip, Betancourt was a provocative political candidate with strong ties to France, the home of her first husband and their two children.
In Paris, she has discovered that her children have grown up, and that surviving six and a half years in grueling jungle captivity has made her into a broad symbol of solidarity in France whose liberation has been greeted by a rare sense of national euphoria.
As she mulls ways to draw attention to the 700 other hostages still held by Colombia's FARC, a visibly tired Betancourt spoke (in English) to a small group of reporters at Hotel Meurice on July 10. Topics ranged from her 14 fellow hostages—including three Americans, the flexibility of the human soul, and the "miracle" of their rescue. Excerpts:
On her new life in France:
It's a blessing being able to sleep in a bed. The first nights I was like, its incredible! My body felt strange, and just enjoyed every bit of it. It's very easy to adapt to good things; its difficult to adapt to bad things.
On human cruelty:
I think we have that animal inside of us, all of us … There is a danger in all of us of harming others so badly, not only through our actions but through our words. We can be so horrible to others.
We need to understand that we cannot judge [others], because in situations like the ones I experienced, any of us could do cruel things … Before I couldn't understand why things like this have happened so many times in so many places?
Her fellow hostages:
I learned a lot from them. That there is magic; there is a dark side of man, but you can also plug yourself into the light, and you can become an enormous light for others.
Three American hostages who were saved along with her:
It was very difficult for them. They arrived, and only one of them could speak the [Spanish] language. They had gone through very hard conditions. They were put in the same group as us, in the same camp. I think they [eventually] found a way of sharing with others what they [originally] thought was happening only to them. The sharing is important. The sharing of despair, counting the days.
I remember when they arrived, they had only been abducted for a few months, and they might have thought: "There are people in this group who have been hostages for five years!" By the end, some of us had been there for 10 years, others for seven years, and they [the Americans] had been there for five years, and we understood that we had our pain in common. We had all gone through a horrible experience. And I think we could understand that—after all those years—and come to an understanding, and have a caring attitude toward each other.
On whether there were signs of American involvement in the dramatic rescue:
I think that the operation was 100 percent Colombian. I think that in some way, the Americans had been informed that the operation was going to be done and that some kind of useful technical tools were shared with the Colombians.
Survival tactics as a hostage in the jungle:
The important thing was to fill the day with activities that could be repeated in a schedule, to give you stability in a world with no stability.
I shouldn't talk about my faith because it is very intimate, and I don't have the ability to evangelize. But the thing I can give is testimony, of the importance of a spiritual connection with God. I don't know whatever you call God, [but it] is what makes us human beings and not animals.
On being the only woman among male hostages and rebels:
I know that I have to testify to all that I lived. I know it is something that has to be done, but I need time. It is not easy to talk about things that still hurt. It will probably hurt all my life. [But] I want to forgive, but forgiveness comes with forgetting. I have to forget in order to find peace in my soul and be able to forgive. But at the same time, once I have forgiven and forgotten, I will have to bring back memories [to tell others]. They will probably be filtered by time so they won't come with all the pain that I feel right now.
Sometimes people think that miracles are something that happens to others, and very seldom. I think that they happen to everybody, but we just don't understand what's happening to us and we prefer to talk about coincidence. We should give the credit to God.
Handling the trauma:
It's like the roaring of the waves; I know they are coming, and they are getting closer. [But that's why] I know that its time for me to just talk, because I don't want to be submerged by depression.
On what she will do in France:
I can transmit the love of Colombians for peace and for freedom. It is nice to feel that the world is so receptive to Colombia's suffering ... [But] no matter where you are, you can do beautiful things if you have the disposition, the devotion and the ability to work for those who are suffering, for those who don't have a place in the world.