Scars of captivity mark freed Colombian hostages

Apr 25, 2012, 8:51 PM

Associated Press

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Their nationally televised releases were ecstatic celebrations, cathartic moments for a conflict-weary Colombia. Their rebel captors had held them in the jungle, often in chains, for as many as 14 years.

Yet soon the initial joy faded, replaced by psychological trauma.

Colombia’s freed hostages suffer from insomnia, depression, financial trouble, memory loss. Divorce is common. One even gets nostalgic for the simplicity of life as a jungle prisoner.

“At first everything is euphoria, eagerness to know everything that you missed out on while you were kidnapped, hugs, kisses, congratulations and warm welcomes,” said Luis Eladio Perez, a former senator freed in 2008 after six years of captivity.

“But the days pass and one is left with an immense loneliness, loneliness that is aggravated by depression,” Perez said.

Many former hostages say they have found it impossible to successfully resume the lives they lived before captivity, and doctors and psychologists interviewed by The Associated Press said the emotional wounds of some may never heal.

All were held by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which took up arms nearly a half century ago and has in recent years been weakened by Colombia’s U.S.-backed military.

Early this month the FARC released 10 soldiers and police that it said were its last political prisoners.

Since 2008, the rebels have freed about 30 captives and another 20 have been rescued in military operations. At least 16 died in captivity, some during failed rescue attempts, others killed by guerrillas who believed soldiers were closing in on them.

Their ordeals have been chronicled in books, including one by the most famous ex-hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and three U.S. military contractors also held more than six years.

Many endured months if not years of being regularly chained by the neck to one another other and to trees. They suffered numbing ennui, jungle diseases, and long forced marches to avoid the military.

To help them cope, some adopted jungle animals as pets. Birds and monkeys were common, and perhaps the oddest was the peccary adopted by Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero, who said after his April 2 release that he managed to train it to stop biting.

Such distractions helped lighten the grimness of captivity.

Perez, 58, described going five months without toilet paper, and having his boots taken away for a year after a failed 2005 escape attempt with Betancourt, forcing him to walk barefoot in the snake-invested jungle.

A year and a half after his release, Perez divorced his wife and discovered, among other problems, that he had defaulted on bank debts.

“At times, one thinks it would have been better to have stayed in the jungle than to leave it and encounter the series of very difficult problems one faces,” he said, his voice shaking.

Most former captives suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms including insomnia, anxiety, depression, irritability and hypersensitivity, said Dr. Ismael Roldan, former director of psychiatry at Bogota’s National University.

“The human being is a social being by nature and these people have been there, tied to trees, in situations where social contact has been too impoverished,” said Roldan, who has interviewed some of the freed FARC captives.

Santiago Rojas, a doctor who has written about stress and mental health, said being held hostage affects a captive’s “entire perception of life. It is an open wound that can be healed or can remain open.”

To heal the traumas suffered, a victim “must be moved to the present from a time that has been lost,” Rojas said. “It’s as if you were sleeping for a number of months through much of what is life but with permanent nightmares.”

Kidnap victims typically return with very low self-esteem, said psychologist Diana Romero.

Her 49-year-old father, police officer Jorge Romero, was released on April 2 after nearly 13 years of captivity and doesn’t talk much about that time.

“He’s told us only that he wants to turn the page and start again,” she said.

Police officer Jorge Trujillo Solarte was also released on April 2 and spent more than 12 years of captivity.

His mother, Oliva Solarte, said her 42-year-old son now has trouble remembering things.

“He speaks to me about something and two hours later tells me the same thing,” she said. “It isn’t possible that the guerrillas take away perfectly healthy human beings and return them like this.”

Congressman Jorge Eduardo Gechem, who was kidnapped in 2002 by the FARC in a plane hijacking that triggered the end of government-rebel peace talks, said his greatest affliction since his 2008 release has been the inability to get regular sleep.

“At first I could sleep only 15 to 40 minutes or maybe up to an hour. Lately I’ve been able to sleep four or five hours, but sometimes I awake suddenly for no reason … and there is no lack of nightmares,” he said.

Gechem, too, saw his marriage dissolve.

The relatively high divorce rate among ex-hostages, says the psychiatrist Roldan, is due to many reasons, beginning with time spent apart. Some ex-captives become “very introverted and have trouble expressing feelings of love,” he said.

Army Sgt. Arbey Delgado, 43, also saw his marriage fall apart. Rescued two years ago after 12 years of captivity, he says he is unable to bear the confinement of his apartment.

“I want to be outside,” he said. “After captivity, confined to the jungle, to be confined to an apartment is very difficult.”

After being held hostage, “one is never the same,” he said.

In his dreams, Delgado jokes, “I’ve been kidnapped six or seven more times.”

Some former hostages seem to have coped rather well with life after captivity.

Alan Jara, who was much beloved by the fellow captives to whom he taught Russian and English during his 7 1/2 years in FARC hands, was re-elected last year as governor of the eastern lowlands state of Meta, the same job he held just months before he was kidnapped.

His marriage is intact, and he has made up for all the lost meals by putting on considerable weight.

Excess has tempted many freed captives.

Some, particularly those captured while still in their teens, have engaged in heavy alcohol consumption and sexual escapades.

In one instance, in circumstances that remain unclear, a freed soldier met death.

In September, William Dominguez was found dead in a rough Bogota neighborhood, his body riddled with bullet and knife wounds.

The slaying proved poignant for many Colombians who remembered the day Dominguez regained his freedom, he sang a song he had written about his kidnapping to then-President Alvaro Uribe.

“How it changes our lives,” he sang before Uribe. “Yesterday I was one man, today I am another.”


Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Scars of captivity mark freed Colombian hostages