Ingrid Betancourt Discusses Memoir About Hostage Experience in Colombia

Ingrid Betancourt, a 2002 Colombian presidential candidate and former hostage of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), spoke about her book and her experiences in captivity to a packed audience on Wednesday evening.

In a talk co-sponsored by the Standing Committee on Ethnic Studies and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Betancourt answered questions from Caroline M. Elkins, chair of the Committee on Ethnic Studies, who reviewed Betancourt’s memoir “Even Silence Has an End” for The New York Times in September.

“The book is at once a political text but also a stunning literary achievement,” Elkins said, adding that it addresses “how we think about lived experiences of hostages and how we approach it politically.”

Taken hostage by FARC on Feb. 23, 2002 and not rescued until July 2, 2008, Betancourt spent two-thirds of her captivity traveling from camp to camp. When not on the move, she endured crowded living spaces, the humiliation of constant obedience, and a strained dynamic between hostages that was especially directed at Betancourt, a high-profile political figure.

“It was so inspiring just seeing how she was able to remain strong,” Arturo Elizondo ’14 said.

During a book signing following Wednesday’s talk, one man in the audience criticized Betancourt with comments about her rescue. A 2009 memoir by three other FARC hostages also portrayed Betancourt as an intolerable fellow hostage, inciting controversy over her capture.

But Betancourt’s memoir addresses her struggle with a balance of self-critique and forgiveness. She called the writing process both “torture” and “rewarding.”

“Once it’s done, I just feel that it’s given me so much back,” Betancourt said.

Throughout her six and a half years in the Colombian jungle, Betancourt found hope in the memory of her children, the “love and dignity” taught to her by her parents, and isolated moments of kindness by the FARC—one guard taught her to weave, and the manual activity became a kind of meditation.

But the reality of captivity was usually filled with fear. Betancourt’s frequent attempts at escape were faced with brutal punishment, although during the question-and-answer session, she said that FARC guards—many of whom turn to the guerrilla organization as their best option—were as trapped as their hostages.

“Those guys dream exactly the way we dream,” she said.  “Prisoners might eventually escape, but guards will never escape.”

—Staff writer Radhika Jain can be reached at radhikajain@college.harvard.edu.

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