Tuesday 6 September 2016

Even Silence has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt: Book Note

Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt: Book Note

Recently I read Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir (published in English in 2010 by Penguin Books) of her six years in captivity with the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Betancourt was the leader of the “Green” party in Colombia, campaigning for the Presidency when she was captured in 2002.

Colombia has endured an appalling civil war for 52 years between the government and FARC. The FARC's tactics included taking prisoners for ransom or for negotiating purposes. Ransoms were useful in supporting its activities, although much of its money in later years came from the illegal narcotics trade. Betancourt’s capture was a negotiating tool, as she was a prominent public figure in Colombia. She was also a dual French-Colombian citizen, so the French government was interested in her release.

As a valuable commodity for FARC, Betancourt was not subjected to rape or any other form of sexual abuse, and was able to report a young man—a child soldier—who was peeping at her as she went about her daily business. Nor was she subjected to any violent form of torture.  She was, however, underfed, sometimes deliberately. And after several escape attempts, she spent quite a lot of time in chains. Some of her guards would tighten the chain around her neck if they were displeased with her.

Ingrid Betancourt
The memoir shows how people who might have joined FARC out of poverty, or genuine belief in its original revolutionary ideals, were corrupted by power. The guards used the small amount of autonomy they possessed to humiliate their prisoners in unnecessary ways. Many of the FARC guards were child soldiers, who quickly learned the ways of their elders. Betancourt had some sympathy for the children, especially for the young girls who along with being guards and soldiers put on lipstick and talked of the boys and men they were in love with.  FARC child soldiers do not appear to have been subjected to the same horrible brutalities one reads about elsewhere, such as child soldiers in Sierra Leone or Congo who were forced to kill other children as part of their initiation into rebel armies.

Several things kept Betancourt going throughout this terrible six-year ordeal. One was weekly messages via radio from her mother and sometimes from her children, who were not living in Colombia as it was too dangerous for them: they lived elsewhere with their father. A special radio station delivered these messages, and most of the time the FARC permitted her to listen to them.

Another thing that kept her going was her love for her children.  At various times she persuaded her guards to give her birthday cakes for her children’s birthdays. She and other prisoners, and sometimes guards, would then “celebrate” the birthday, singing Happy Birthday and pretending that the child could hear.

Betancourt was also Roman Catholic, and as far as I could determine, her faith strengthened during her years with the FARC.  Faith is something I do not personally understand, as a life-long atheist, but it clearly sustained her.

Other hostages who were imprisoned with Betancourt disagree with her account of her captivity: some saying that she acted like a “queen bee” and demanded—and received--special privileges from FARC.  I can’t comment on those allegations, as I have only her account to go by. But she strikes me as an exceptionally brave woman, who in very difficult circumstances (including sometimes having to share quarters with several men) managed to maintain her sense of self and her human dignity.

I don’t possess any expertise on Colombian politics, and indeed I didn’t follow Colombia in the news until I read this book. I have met two people from Colombia in my life. One was a recent student, whose family fled to Canada as refugees after the FARC demanded that they give up some land they owned to it. I asked him why they didn’t just give up the land, and he said the FARC would then hound the family for all its possessions, and possibly kidnap them for ransom.

 The other person I met was a human rights activist, a woman in her early thirties. I met her at a seminar in the University of Lund (Sweden) human rights program in 2005. She told me that she had decided never to have children, as they would be at too much risk, given her activities. That struck me then, and now, as an enormous sacrifice.

As it happens, FARC and the government of Colombia are concluding negotiations for a peace treaty as I write this. The treaty is controversial as it includes amnesties for both FARC leaders and military officials who committed atrocities. There will be a national vote on the treaty, and according to the news sources I read, it’s not at all certain that voters will accept it. There’s a huge debate among scholars of what is known as “transitional justice” (or injustice?) about whether people who commit crimes against humanity or war crimes should be given amnesty in the interests of national peace, or forced to stand trial even if convictions will undermine the peace process.  In this case, my guess is that amnesty is necessary for peace, however unjust it is.