SPIEGEL Interview with Ingrid Betancourt 'I Wanted to Become a Mother Again'

For six years, FARC rebels held Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt hostage in the jungle. In a SPIEGEL interview following the publication of her memoir, she discusses her years in captivity, her feelings of guilt and the therapeutic process of writing her book.


SPIEGEL: Ms. Betancourt, we would like to start out with a banal question: How are you doing?

Betancourt: Better than I was two years ago or a year ago or six months ago. Sometimes I'm fragile, sometimes still too emotional, but I'm putting everything I can on my side to be a happy person.

SPIEGEL: Is happiness today something different than before your captivity?

Betancourt: Yes, before I was abducted, I think that happiness was related to success. Nowadays happiness is related, for me, to rest, peace, serenity.

SPIEGEL: You were a very ambitious, resolute woman. Isn't it impossible to lose your impatience?

Betancourt: Six-and-a-half years is a long time, and learning to lose your impatience is a process. Eventually, it's gone.

SPIEGEL: You've said that during your years in the jungle, you wanted to become another person.

Betancourt: Yes, because the priorities of my life changed. Nothing that I can encounter today can be as bad as what is behind me. There are small things that used to upset me, but now I just think: Who cares?

SPIEGEL: When you were freed in the summer of 2008, everyone was amazed by your initial appearances in public: The icy meeting with your husband, then photos and interviews, and finally press conferences with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. And throughout all of this, you appeared to be unbroken. Were you in a state of shock, or were the old reflexes of a professional politician merely at work here?

Betancourt: Oh, I think I was enlightened by this feeling of freedom. I mean, I was in the beams of happiness, as if I were transformed. But when I see the pictures of that moment, people perhaps don't notice, but I can very clearly see the burden of the six years of captivity.

SPIEGEL: The euphoria of the first few days was followed by a feeling of emptiness and a breakdown?

Betancourt: Of course. I was very lucky that the French government immediately took care of me and had a team of doctors give me a very thorough physical examination. And that took several weeks.

SPIEGEL: And what did they find?

Betancourt: A lot of little things. Living in the jungle is tough on your skin, and six years without a dentist had its consequences, but it's not like I have cancer or anything. And then they offered to have somebody talk to me. At first, I thought I didn't need it, but others knew better.

SPIEGEL: A therapy to work through the trauma?

Betancourt: Yes, and a therapy that produced many explanations. Hostages want to survive -- they are very focused on their own little view of things.

SPIEGEL: So hostages become egoists?

Betancourt: Yes, and in my case, the hostage-takers said that if there were no successful negotiations within a year, they would shoot us. And later they said if the military comes, the hostages will die. That kind of thing burns itself into you. Every single day, I thought only of myself and of fleeing. You don't become empathetic in a situation like that.

SPIEGEL: And once you were free?

Betancourt: The main issue was the relationship with my children, because that was my top priority. I wanted to become a mother again.

SPIEGEL: Your children were ages 13 and 16 when you were abducted ...

Betancourt: ... and adults when I returned. Letting go is difficult for all parents, but I had no clue what to do now. It was like time travel, as if I were trying to open a closed door. I did what I had always done, and thought that I would help them this way -- but they had the feeling that I was barging into their private lives.

SPIEGEL: Did you manage to become a mother again?

Betancourt: I'm sure this will sound cheesy, but love helps. In the jungle I heard the voice of my mother on a radio station for hostages and their families, and I realized how powerful that was, the voice of a mother, and of course a father's voice, too. My children wanted to see and hear me, but their reactions were merely different from what I had expected. We first had to learn to convey what we were feeling and really listen to each other, and then the flow of communication began again. And eventually, I was a mom again, and it was very fulfilling.

SPIEGEL: Can your children understand what happened to you?

Betancourt: Yes, I think they needed to be recognized as victims, too, even by me. It wasn't fair for them, either, and they had also been deprived of so many things in February 2002.

SPIEGEL: You were supposedly warned at the time not to drive to San Vicente. Your former campaign manager, Clara Rojas, has insinuated that your political ambitions caused you to risk being kidnapped.

Betancourt: The truth is that I was in Florencia on my way to an election event in San Vicente. We wanted to continue by car, but the military said: We have helicopters every 20 minutes leaving for San Vicente. So we waited -- for two hours. In the meantime the president's plane landed, he boarded a helicopter, flew on to San Vicente, and I was still waiting. Then my security escort was taken away, all seven of them. This was a political maneuver. They wanted to dissuade me from traveling to San Vicente while the president was there.


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