NEW YORK — Of all the horror, pain, and degradation both physical and mental that Ingrid Betancourt suffered during six and a half years in the Colombian jungle, perhaps nothing felt more dangerous to her than when her captors tried to erase her last bit of identity: her name.
They wanted to call her by a number. And she refused, angering her fellow hostages and probably putting all of them at risk. "Ingrid Betancourt," she said when the time came to recite her number.
"For me it was like taking away my oxygen," Betancourt says now, speaking in a highly emotional interview upon the release of "Even Silence Has an End," her powerful, often agonizing memoir of life in captivity.
"There are things you do because you have to. You don't always calculate the consequences. And sometimes you do very stupid things because of that." Eventually, though, the captors backed down.
Betancourt's book has already been called "a classic of Colombian history and literature" by Hector Abad, one of the country's most influential living writers. It is also bound to propel Betancourt, a heroine in France and a more complex figure in Colombia (she is a citizen of both), to bigger fame in the United States and elsewhere – as is her appearance Wednesday on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
And it will raise the question of just where the former Colombian senator and presidential candidate (she was a minor party candidate when captured in February 2002) goes from here. Another presidential run? A global campaign against kidnapping? More books?
"I don't want really to come back to politics but I can't say I won't do it (later)," Betancourt says, sitting in the living room of a friend's Manhattan home. At 48, the mother of two looks much younger, and chic in a short skirt, high-heeled slingbacks revealing purple-painted toes, and a string of pearls around the neck that, in the jungle, was often encircled by chains.
"I am concerned about Colombia and compelled to react," she says. "But I have to reconstruct my life. I am a human being. All us survivors, we are wounded very deeply. We need to be able to reconstruct relationships with others based on trust."
And, she says, she needs to find her own place to live. Though she's been dividing her time between Paris, where her mother lives, and New York, Betancourt says she plans to live somewhere else entirely – and not in Colombia, at least for now.
Her story, is, by any measure, astonishing.
Betancourt was captured by FARC guerrillas as she attempted to travel to San Vicente del Caguan, where then-President Andres Pastrana had just ordered a rebel safe haven dismantled after failed peace talks. As days grew into months, months into years, she despaired of ever being freed. Several times, she tried to escape into the jungle, risking death either from the elements or from the captors who tracked her down. One escape involved making a flotation device from a Styrofoam cooler.
As punishment, she was kept chained much of the time, often to a tree. She often slept on plastic sheets on the ground. Going to the bathroom meant asking permission to walk over to a horrid-smelling hole in the earth and compete with huge swarms of insects to relieve herself.
Her book begins with the horrible retribution after the third escape attempt, when she crawled out of the "cage" she and her campaign aide and fellow hostage, Clara Rojas, shared.
"I started with that because it was the hardest moment," she says. "I thought if I can write about this, I can write about anything." She was chained and marched back, as if on a leash. And yet she doesn't write what is generally assumed: that she was raped once recaptured.
She responds: "I don't like to write about everything. You don't say certain things out of respect for the soul, for what you are, for others too – my children, my mom, the readers – even the captors."
After more than six years of living with the threat of death hanging over her every day, Betancourt was rescued in a spectacular way. Colombia's military infiltrated the FARC and duped the guerrillas into allowing her and fellow hostages to depart on a helicopter, thinking they were simply being moved.
Once aloft, the rebels accompanying the hostages were overpowered and the captives were told they were free. A short video taken by the rescuers shows Betancourt weeping with joy.
And yet, in a gesture that did little to win friends in Colombia, she recently requested $6.8 million in damages for her years in captivity. When word of her petition became public in July, there was widespread outrage among Colombians who considered her worse than ungrateful. Betancourt withdrew the request.
Her frustration with the fallout is palpable. She was, she says, acting on behalf of all victims of terrorism who deserve protection from the state.
"It has been very painful for me to see the reaction," she says, her eyes welling with tears. "The Colombian government presents this as if I were suing the soldiers who rescued me. They're saying I want to make money off my abduction. I tell you something: the amount of money that the lawyers came up with? It could have been twice, three times that, I wouldn't have accepted it to go through what I went through. So I think it's very unjust, very humiliating.
"They were like wolves after me, in the most cruel way."
Writing the book was clearly a painful experience. Betancourt says it took 18 months. She would eat breakfast, then force herself to write from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., with no break. She started with a list of events that she didn't want to forget, and her memory, she says, would often drift to unexpected places.
She didn't, of course, have notes to rely on. "We were frisked all the time," she says. "So I would write during the day, but then burn it." She was given two notebooks, she said, in the entire six years. She had a pencil, but no sharpener, so she used a machete.
And so, she says, the book "is not chronological, it is emotional." But certain dates are seared in her brain. Like the day when she discovered, from reading a scrap of newspaper wrapped around a cabbage, that her beloved father, Gabriel Betancourt, had died, a year after her capture. Before she left on the trip that led to her capture, she had asked him – he was ill – to hold on, if anything happened to her.
And of course there was the pain of separation from her mother, Yolanda, who called into a radio station nearly every day to broadcast messages to her, and from her two children, Lorenzo and Melanie, who were 13 and 16 when she was abducted.
Mother and children enjoyed a joyful, tearful reunion at the Bogota airport. But even when one has faced down violent, assault rifle-toting captors, readjusting relationships with one's children can still be a challenge.
"It was tough," Betancourt says, asked how the reconciliation has gone. "There was lots of love. But we're human beings. We carry our fragilities."
Betancourt still wrestles with perceptions among some in Colombia that she was reckless in trying to reach San Vicente by land.
The government would not take her by helicopter. Then, it withdrew her security detail bit by bit, her guards, her armored cars, all to discourage her, she says.
"They said I wanted to get myself kidnapped. It is crazy!" she says now. "I won't accept it. They are worried they could be held responsible for my abduction. I am fed up with lies."
She's also saddened by the accounts of some fellow hostages – notably, U.S. military contractor Keith Stansell – that she was haughty in captivity, demanded extra privileges, even told FARC rebels that he and two fellow Americans were CIA agents. In her book, she paints Stansell as coarsely materialistic. She says now she prefers to remember the wonderful moments of solidarity she had with many fellow captives.
Betancourt has also had to deal with fallout from comments she's made about Colombia – for example, that society there is "sick."
"Yes, I think we ARE sick," says this politician who made her name by standing up to drug corruption in Colombia's congress in the 1990s. "I include myself. We are passionate. We can go from hate to love with no transition. I think this explains our violence."
As for herself, Betancourt says she truly feels different now, more than eight years after her capture.
"I think I changed character," she says. "I didn't think it was possible. I'm a more patient person, for example. My relationship with time is different."
One result, she says, is that she is learning to cook.
And she's allowing herself to eat things – sweet things, like cake and ice cream – that she avoided before.
"I've learned something," says the slender Betancourt. "You can eat those things and not get fat! I didn't know that before."