Making Up for Lost Time

I have just published a book, Law of the Jungle, about the kidnapping of three U.S. military contractors and the Colombian GIs who were sent to find them, but instead stumbled upon $20 million in guerrilla cash. One of the most interesting characters in the book is Clara Rojas, who spent six years as a hostage and gave birth to a baby boy in the jungle.

For someone who's been to el infierno and back, Rojas looks divine. When we meet in Bogotá to discuss her campaign for a seat in the Colombian Senate in next month's election, the only hints of her ordeal are the crow's feet framing her coffee-brown eyes. They're etched deep.

Eight years ago this week, Rojas was managing the presidential campaign of Ingrid Betancourt, who made the foolhardy decision to stump for votes in a rebel stronghold in southern Colombia. Rojas went along and the two were promptly kidnapped by FARC guerrillas.

Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, became a cause celebre. Yet Rojas, a nerdy lawyer always in Betancourt's shadow, emerged with the more harrowing storyline: In 2003 she became pregnant by a guerrilla fighter.

"On the one hand, I was profoundly happy to know that I was going to have a baby," says Rojas, who was 38 at the time and felt her biological clock ticking. "On the other hand, I was deeply worried to realize that I was going to become a mother in the middle of the jungle."

Rojas failed to dilate and rebels, whose only medical experience was helping cows give birth, performed a Cesarean section. With a 100-watt light bulb swinging over her stomach, the last image Rojas remembered was of rebels sterilizing their scalpels over a candle.

Rojas and her baby, whom she named Emmanuel, survived the operation and eventually made it home alive. But while Betancourt - who was rescued by Colombian commandos in 2008 - has momentarily sworn-off politics, Rojas as well as a handful of former legislators once held hostage by the FARC are running in Colombia's March 14 Congressional election.

Are these folks gluttons for punishment? Shouldn't they be savoring their freedom by spending more time with their family and friends? Shouldn't they be playing it safe?


But the former hostages are making up for lost time. Most of them spent six to seven soul-numbing years in the hands of rebel gunmen with nothing to do but daydream about their return to office. Besides, politics is their paycheck: It's the only thing they know how to do.

Rojas notes that the risks are substantially lower. The guerrillas have been driven back and security has improved, making it safer to stump for votes. Rojas is even planning to bring Emmanuel, now 5, to some of her events.

In the traditional sense, six years of swatting mosquitoes, eating lentils and rice, and sleeping in the mud wasn't great prep for a would-be senator. But Rojas focuses on the sunny side - a key survival mechanism. The vast majority of congressional candidates, she points out, come from Colombia's upper-class. But her ordeal gave her a taste of how the other half - in this case about 22 million poor Colombians - lives.