Colombia’s longtime insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is branded a drug-trafficking terrorist group by the United States and Europe. The group has been weakened by a Colombian government offensive.
FARC recently released several hostages, in what the Colombian government says represents “the start of the FARC giving up.” However, FARC claims the releases are intended to encourage a swap, hoping that the government will reciprocate by releasing jailed guerilla fighters.
Anastasia Moloney is a British freelance journalist based in the Colombian capital, Bogotá. She is a regular contributor to the Financial Times and a contributing editor for World Politics Review. She writes at blog network “From the Frontline” about the release of one hostage and his experiences in the hands of the FARC.
Apart from the wires, the media in Europe didn’t cover this story. It’s not about a French citizen or French president Sarkozy flexing his muscles on the international stage. It doesn’t have the drama of a daring rescue operation. But for many Colombians, kidnapping remains a daily drama.
This is Alan Jara’s story, a hostage held by Colombia’s guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He was released earlier this week.
When 44-year-old provincial governor, Alan Jara, left home on 15th July 2001, his only son was seven years-old. Alan, an engineer who had studied in the former Soviet Union, had been invited to an inauguration of a bridge built with the help of UN funds. The UN car Alan was traveling in was stopped by a roadblock. It was controlled by the FARC who demanded he get out of the car. The guerrillas told him that because he was a politician, they were holding him hostage. In those days, it was common for the FARC to kidnapping politicians and use them as bargaining chips in exchange for guerrillas held in state jails. The FARC’s most famous political hostage, ex-presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was freed in a military operation carried out by Colombia’s armed forces along with 14 other hostages last year.
On Tuesday, seven years, seven months and 20 days later, Alan arrived home. He had walked seven weeks towards freedom through Colombia’s thick and humid jungle. A chain was attached around his neck and tied to another person, just in case Alan decided to make a run for it. Every 4,000 steps, the guerrillas stopped to rest. He reckons he walked over 150 km until reaching a clearing in the jungle where a Brazilian loaned helicopter with Red Cross insignia was waiting to pick him up and end his nightmare.
He was fed a monotonous daily diet of beans, lentils, rice, and pasta. At night, like every night, he would be chained to a post to prevent him escaping. He said he was fortunate. The FARC put chains around his left foot, while other hostages were chained at the neck while they slept. During his captivity, Alan survived a bout of cerebral malaria and temporarily lost his vision in one eye. To fill the endless days, he would teach other hostages English and Russian. Alan became known as the teacher, and the one who told good jokes.
When Alan arrived at a provincial airport in Colombia, his son, who is now a young man, and his wife, who has tirelessly campaigned for his release, were waiting. As the helicopter touched down on the hot tarmac, they ran to greet him and became locked in a weeping embrace. Across Colombia, many were glued to their TV sets, as they stopped to watch a family being united. People shed tears.
Inside Alan’s house, the Christmas lights are still on. Presents lie under a large Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. In his last letter written from a jungle camp, Alan asked his family to keep the Christmas decorations in the hope that he might return home one day. He didn’t want to miss another Christmas with his family.
Today, Sigifredo López, a local politician who was kidnapped seven years ago is expected to be released. The helicopters have already set off to a secret location in the Colombian jungle to pick him up. This afternoon Colombians will once again be glued to the TV, watching another emotional reunion of a broken family.
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