Thursday, February 03, 2011

"Even Silence Has an End"

To those of you who are actively booking their next holiday already and were considering a virgin forest as number one destination on their list, I would recommend a thorough reading of Paul Theroux's "Mosquito Coast" before doing so. This superb story about a man engaging his entire family to trade their comfortable life in the city for an adventure to produce ice in the midst of the hostile Honduran jungle, is mind-boggling in it's description of the forest as a biotope. Theroux's "main character" is, literally, a green hell where stench and decay are the masters of ceremony.

Ingrid Betancourt, in her latest book "Even Silence Has an End - My Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle" (2010), adds another dimension to that picture: it's a world without horizon. A horizon which she had to miss during the six and a half years she was kept as a hostage by the FARC guerilla's.

Controversy almost seems to be Betancourts middle name. She made her mark in Colombian politics by running a campaign, handing out condoms on the streets, to symbolically protect the people from the endemic corruption in the country. That campaign didn't go exactly unremarked. And now again, she is being booed, despised, even hated by her fellow Colombians, while polls showed that at the time of her release Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate at the time of her kidnapping, held an approval rate between seventy-one to eighty-three percent and she reached almost saint-hood in Europe, not in the least due to the welcomes she received on the Elysee in Paris and by the Pope in the Vatican. So where did it go wrong ? Main reason is her request for arbitration, in September 2010, of a six million dollar claim for moral compensation and loss of revenue during her years in captivity. Though Betancourt -clearly taken by surprise by the outpouring of negative, even vitriolic, reactions- explained herself in the media that the claim (and the enormous amount) had more of a symbolic meaning and that she had never nurtured the intention to actively sue the Colombian State or the Army, which were responsible for her successful rescue in 2008, the damage had been done. Ingrid Betancourt became persona-non-grata for large parts of the Colombian population. Though in interviews she has stated herself that, after all her trials and tribulations, she has no further political ambitions, I'm personally convinced, judging from her past political and personal record, we haven't seen the last thing of her yet.

The duality of this complex person is just as well intricately woven into her book. On the one hand, in "Even Silence Has an End" she talks about a life that was no longer under her own control and the constant struggle to maintain one's dignity, which she ranks more important than life itself, under such dire circumstances. On the other hand, the reader should be aware that quite a few of her fellow captives had already published their memoirs before her: Clara Rojas, her campaign-manager; John Pinchao, a young soldier who managed to escape; Luis Eladio Perez, a colleague senator and three American contractors (Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Thomas Howes) whose airplane crashed in the jungle. Especially the books of Clara and of the three Americans are less than flattering in their judgment of Betancourt as fellow captive. So "Even Silence has an End" certainly also holds an apologetic meaning: when every-one has had the chance to tell their truth, now it's my chance to tell mine. "Rashomon" revisited, so to speak.

Even holding this caveat in mind (as one should), reading Betancourts' story, spread out over seven-hundred pages in the original edition, nevertheless is a most gripping and upsetting experience. We are faced with a woman who has been digging deep into her inner self, looked at her personality from every angle and as a result produced this amazing "report" on those six years of her life. One can only imagine how painful the writing process must have been. While writing the book, Betancourt withdrew from public life into the mountains, such that every night, after finishing writing for the day, she would have ... a horizon to watch.

The layers of the book vaguely remind the structure of Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin", which is built around concentric circles from which the revolution is spreading: in the center, there is the ship "Potemkin"; in the middle ring, there is the city of Odessa and at the very outside of the circle is the Russian society as a whole. Betancourts "Potemkin" at the center holds the different camps where she has spent her time (she herself clearly calls it concentration camps, though not extermination camps); in the middle, like some Alcatraz prison, there is the Amazon forest while the outside world, with all of it's social and political machinations, constitutes the outer ring. The book, in essence, is the story of her constant struggle to get from the innermost to the outermost circle, through that hostile "green hell" that is the Amazon forest right in the middle. She sets the tone right from the start, by telling (a-chronologically) the story of one of her five escape attempts. Failed, like all the others, but her inspiration to immediately start planning for her next attempt, for no matter how hard and cruel the punishments may have been every time she got caught again by her perpetrators of the FARC, she knows that forsaking the hope of escape and thus liberty equals the end.

The book remains captivating throughout the narrative because of the multiple layers, first and foremost the one of a woman who is always analyzing herself in the light of constantly changing, but always extreme, circumstances and who mentally thrusts herself forward towards a point in time beyond her captivity and from there is asking herself: will I, once I have arrived at that point, be able to face myself in the mirror without having to turn away my eyes ? Despite the stories of her fellow-captives, Betancourt is very convincing in making us believe that she has succeeded in that feat "con brio". No one will ever really know what happened there in the jungle. She herself has stated at several occasions that "what happened in the jungle, shall remain in the jungle". Personally I'm convinced that Ingrid Betancourt, during her years of captivity, has not been able to avoid all the pitfalls of greed, egoism and the like and she makes no effort to deny it in this book. Yet, I also deem it reasonable to believe that her plight, being one of the very few women among the hostages and with her standing as a trophy-prisoner for the FARC, must have been even harder to bear than it was for the others. Although there have been contacts and friendships that have helped her survive the ordeal, such as with Luis "Lucho" Eladio Perez, or with Marc Gonsalves or John Pinchao, it is just as clear that she has been no exception to Sartre's "L'enfer, c'est les autres" (Hell is the others), whether those others were her fellow hostages or her FARC captors.

Then there's also the narrative of this omni-present jungle, which at scarce moments unfolds it's beauty, but which is above all a formidable enemy, where danger always lurks no further than behind the next tree. Betancourt survives hornet attacks, invasions of giant ants and an encounter with a "tiger"; she survives thunderstorms which she has to brave without shelter, chained by her neck to a tree. Sometimes she manages to turn the "enemy" into an ally, such as when, in yet another escape attempt, she and Lucho let themselves be carried downstream for days by the water of one of the rivers cutting through the jungle ... only to be caught again in the end. The jungle devours head to toe those wo are so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the guerilla, only to spit them out, worn and torn, on a godforsaken place and time ... . Or not at all.

In her book, Ingrid Betancourt, in her own, personal way, deals with the FARC: they're terrorists, not just in the political sense of the word but also in the very literal meaning of the word. What they do to their captives, is inhuman. Yet, at several points in her narrative, there is a glimpse of compassion for the boys and girls -some almost children still- being part of this army seeping through. In interviews she has declared that the routine would unmistakably always be the same: each time they were transferred to a different camp, the atmosphere among hostages and guards initially would still be tolerable. Their new guards were still quite friendly and accommodating to their requests, but as time went by, their behaviour invariably would worsen to the point of them becoming almost sadistic.

I'd like to take the opportunity to at least insert a word of criticism with respect to this layer of the story. I was surprised that in her book, Betancourt, being a politician pur sang, has not documented better what is motivating this -at least in name- Marxist group of rebels. There is not much more to be found than some short descriptions about meetings where the guerilla's shout some slogans and do some singing. But what is their ideological background and motivation ? What are their political goals ? Do they have any left at all ? I am convinced that Ingrid Betancourt has had this sort of discussions with her guards and captors, and it could go a long way in explaining the political circumstances under which this whole episode of her life is taking place, but you won't find it in this book. Maybe, it doesn't matter after all. The time that FARC, being originally the military wing of the Colombian communist party, still had some ideological credibility left, is long gone since they have engaged at full throttle in the lucrative narco-trafficking.

The layer of the book that stuck to my memory most, however, is Ingrid's description of her relation to her father, Gabriel Betancourt, twofold Minister of Education in Colombia and for long years top diplomat to the UNESCO, on the one side and with her mother, Yolanda Pulecio, former beauty-queen turned social activist turned politician on the other hand.

Betancourt almost literally sets out on her unfortunate trip that will lead to her captivity from the bedside of her sick father. Because of his bad condition, she had almost canceled the trip to San Vicente, but he promises her he will wait for her return, as he always has. So she goes. She learns about his passing away a few short months after being abducted into the jungle through a newspaper (carelessly or purposely) left laying around. It is the first and maybe the deepest moment of despair she has to go through during her forced stay in the Amazon forest.
The hope that gives her strength comes from the voice of her mother, via Caracol Radio which the hostages can listen to on small transistor radio's. Every day that radio-station is broadcasting a program serving the families of the hostages to send messages to their beloved ones and almost daily, for that long six years and a half, Yolanda Pulecio's voice will ride those airwaves, penetrating the deep jungle, to talk to her daughter. If you have ever seen the images of Betancourt's arrival in the airport at the outcome of her rescue, coded "Operation Jaque" ("checkmate'), you may be able to have a certain sense of the magic connecting these two women and which they have been able to maintain all through the ordeal. Making abstraction of every rightful or false accusation to their address, this book brings homage to an unbelievably powerful love between two unbelievably strong women who in their characters, their engagements, their restlessness and even their controversies are almost each others mirror images.

When, at the end, the reader turns the last page of this book, one has passed through a universe that defies the imagination, due to it's brutality but also it's beauty and it's sharp observations of what it means to be "human". The "human" Betancourt makes mistakes and is held accountable for it in her homecountry and beyond, but the portrait of the woman emerging from these pages truly belongs in the gallery of the great.

Sincerely Yours.


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