Staying Sane in the Heart of Darkness
Ingrid Betancourt Pulecio is a French-Colombian politician and anti-corruption activist. In February 2002 Betancourt was kidnapped by the leftist guerrilla organization Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while she was campaigning for the presidential elections. She was finally rescued by Colombian security forces six and a half years later, in an operation dubbed Operation Jaque, which also rescued 14 other hostages. Her kidnapping received worldwide coverage, particularly in France, because of her dual French citizenship. In 2010 she wrote a memoir about her time in captivity called "Even Silence Has an End."
Question: How did you manage to stay sane after six years of captivity in the jungle?
Ingrid Betancourt: Well I think that the first thing that you have to do is to get in control of your emotions and of yourself because you have the impression, you’re scattered, that you don’t know how to react. You lose the compass of what is good and bad and what is good in the jungle with the guards is bad outside. I mean if you begin to have a relationship where you’re doing what the guards want, and once you’re out you will see that as a treason, a treason to your country, a treason to yourself, a treason to everybody, so you have to be very cautious on what is the perspective you’re looking at yourself, and you have always to see yourself like from the outside.
Then you have to just cope with the time because the days are endless, so you have to fill those days with things that will keep you on focus and for me things like working out, doing physical exercise to keep my body in shape or spiritual exercises like trying to just be very thoughtful of what I was doing and have like a meditation to just try to ponder what was right and what was wrong in terms of myself, not of what the others were expecting from me. Reading books was very important. We didn’t have much books, but I had at least three that I could read. The first was the Bible that I read many times from... It was my treasure. I could lose everything but my Bible. It was always at the reach of my hand, whatever I would do because sometimes we had to run because the Army was near and we couldn’t grab our things and it happened lots of times we had to leave everything behind us and just run, so my Bible was always there, so I could just run with the Bible. And I had two other books that I remember. One was one book of John Grisham, "The Street Lawyer." It was a book that I could read in English. It was given to me from one of my fellow hostages, an American friend of mine Tom that just was very generous and gave me that book to read and I think I read it so many times that I learned it by heart and the other was "Harry Potter in Spanish and that was important because then it takes you to a place where you’re in a civilized world again.
The problem is that once you’re in the jungle you don’t have your normal boundaries. You don’t have a bed. You don’t have a house. You don’t have a kitchen. You don’t have a bath. You cannot address your body needs in a private manner. I mean there is a hole in the ground and you have to pee and everything in that hole in front of everybody. And of course imagine what that does to your psyche. I mean it’s very difficult to just adjust. So reading was important. Doing things like weaving, I learned to weave belts. Whatever you could do with your hands was important because it kept you in a motion of being able to produce something, and producing something kept you balanced in a way.
Question: Why was it so important to insist on being addressed by name rather than by number?
Ingrid Betancourt: I think what it prevented me from was to just lose respect to myself and you see for me that was the most important thing because I could see how they were treating us. There was humiliations, cruelty, abuse, violence. And they were all the time trying to put to fight the prisoners one against the other, filling us with wrong information about the others or giving privileges to some so that the others would feel jealous and would react. And I could see how they were manipulating us. And for me the very important thing was never to forget that they had no right to have me there, that my duty was to escape and that I needed to get back to my family and to my children no matter what. And that I could not accept to just see them as an authority, that I had to always keep in mind that I had to rebel and to keep my distance and to protect my soul because the core of the problem is dignity.
You see the thing is that once you don’t have freedom and you’re obliged to do many things you don’t want, and it becomes a routine, then your identity is at stake because you can feel that you are not anymore yourself, that you are what they want you to be—and you can lose yourself. You can begin doing things that you wouldn’t do in other cases, in other situations. And for me one of the biggest problems is because I wanted to get back to my life I always thought "Everything I do here I have to be able to look at myself backwards and to look at my past and not feel ashamed." Because I knew that that was going to be a problem for me to just feel that I had not acted in a way that I could be comfortable with afterwards.
Recorded on October 19, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
In order to respect herself and to keep hold of her sanity, Betancourt refused to follow her guards' orders. When you’re obliged to do things you don’t want to do, your identity is at stake—you can lose yourself, she says.
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