NY Times Book Review of Even Silence Has An End

This section contains, among other things --

(1) The NY Times Book Review of Even Silence Has An End,

(2) The PBS Newshour (aka MacNeil-Lehrer) interview of Ingrid Betancourt after the publication of her book.

(3) Two book reviews of Until Death Do Us Part: My Struggle to Reclaim Colombia by Ingrid and published only a few weeks before her capture in 2002 by the FARC. Ingrid had been urged to write the book to explain herself and her mission by Dominique de Villepin, her university professor and mentor who, by 2002, was French Foreign Minister and would later become Prime Minister.
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NY Times Book Review of Even Silence Has An End

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New York Times – October 3, 2010 Book Review Section

By CAROLINE ELKINS - professor of history at Harvard and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her book “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.”

Captive for more than a year in the jungles of Colombia, Ingrid Betancourt took to her insect-infested cot, drained by despair. Fat Martha, her aptly nicknamed guard, had brought fresh news: the hell in which Betancourt was living wasn’t harsh enough. A veritable concentration camp, complete with chain-link fences and barbed wire, was being thrown up in haste under the canopies of the country’s impenetrable interior.

In her gripping memoir, “Even Silence Has an End,” Betancourt captures the despondency wrought by Fat Martha’s pronouncement with a blend of power and self-awareness that inscribes not just this one disturbing moment but her account’s every page. “Like Alice in Wonderland, I was falling, falling into a bottomless well,” she writes. “This was my black hole. I was being sucked down, dragged down into the bowels of the earth. I was alive only so that I could witness myself dying.”

There was little to prepare her for the physical and psychological deprivations she would suffer at the hands of the FARC, the quasi-Marxist guerrilla organization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known for its hostage-taking tactics and drug-trafficking allies. A presidential candidate for Colombia’s relatively young Oxygen Green Party, Betancourt set off in an overcrowded pickup truck on Feb. 23, 2002, to campaign in the isolated town of San Vicente del Caguán. Nestled in the onetime demilitarized zone — a region set aside for negotiations between the incumbent government of President Andrés Pastrana and the FARC before Pastrana closed it down — San Vicente was a crucially symbolic stop for Betancourt’s party and its platform of social reform.

Despite the myriad security risks, Betancourt’s entourage forged ahead. That was until a FARC roadblock brought her campaign, and freedom as she knew it, to an end.

The panic of that fateful day gave way to a harrowing six-and-a-half-year ordeal. Countless forced marches that lasted days, and sometimes weeks, plunged Betancourt ever deeper into the jungle. Moving between makeshift camps, she and other FARC captives, including Clara Rojas, her campaign director, descended into an abyss of trauma and cruelty.

Their mobile jungle existence set a miasmic stage for the drama that was to unfold: there were swarms of mosquitoes, acid-red ants, jungle leprosy, microscopic ticks and midges, piranha-infested rivers, anacondas, scorpions, a baking sun and torrential rains. There was the putrid stench of the chontos, or hand-dug latrines. Meager rations of food were more stomach-turning than edible.

Betancourt’s pedigree put her in good position to run for Colombia’s presidency, but at first it militated against adaptation to her new habitat. Both a Colombian and a French citizen, she was raised in relative privilege and lived a life accented by breakfast trays and high-heeled shoes. Her anxieties in captivity consisted of “pathetic little fears,” she recalls. “I told myself that I’d had life too easy, conditioned by an upbringing where fear of change was disguised as caution.”

Betancourt did not tread down the path of self-discovery easily. Bent on escaping, she attempted more than one risky breakout. Unsuccessful, she returned to captivity to face unspeakable punishments, both physical and mental. Some she describes; others she shields from the nakedness of exposure. “Some facts are too painful to be told; in revealing them you relive them,” she observes. “Even if you no longer suffer when you revisit the memory, you keep quiet out of a feeling of self-respect — a reluctance to expose your humiliation. . . . If you share certain things, they will stay alive in other people’s minds. So the most gracious and appropriate thing to do would be to let them die inside you.”

Betancourt hardly folded at the knees. Her “powerlessness” gave way to moments of incredible resolve, her strength rooted in the most primordial of places: the love of her parents, and the lessons they had imparted to her. Above all, she heard the voice of her father (who died while she was in captivity), repeating over and again one word: dignity.

“Even Silence Has an End” is as much a story of relentless introspection as it is a tale of survival. Betancourt had to face down her own weaknesses and self-loathing if she was to overcome the most virulent hazard of all: her fellow captives. Suspicion, love, hostility, friendship and jealousy bound the hostages together in a mind-boggling web of complexity. Egged on by their captors, they often turned on one another. “Minor incidents were poisoning our life,” Betancourt writes. “Deprived of everything — our lives, our pleasures, our loved ones — we had the misguided reflex to cling to what little was left: a tiny amount of space, a piece of cookie, an extra minute in the sun.”

Betancourt was a lightning rod for scorn. A sophisticated and learned woman with an aristocratic air, she was confronted with “alpha male” behavior, especially after three American hostages arrived. That Betancourt was undoubtedly the most prominent among the FARC hostages helped little in intracaptive relations, nor did it help Betancourt with her captors. Some of them took distinct pleasure in humiliating the French-Colombian woman, whose dual nationality rendered her an outsider, and one who symbolized the bourgeois culture they so despised.

Betancourt writes of simple kindnesses and deep affections, of kaleidoscopic turns of emotion and relations whose effects were disorienting and lasting. Today, she “can no longer feel just one emotion at a time.” She is “torn between opposite emotions that inhabit me and shake me.” This is particularly true when it comes to Clara Rojas. Unquestionably the most enigmatic figure in the jungle prison, Rojas — who gave birth to a son, the child of a FARC captor, by Caesarean section while still a hostage — is at once an object of resentment and of familial affection; like sisters, Betancourt suggests, they were joined by fate with a mercurial attachment.

Some may take a cynical view of Betancourt’s account, despite her care to balance it with scathing self-criticism. Many of the animosities that unfolded in the jungle, both among the captives and toward the seemingly uncaring Colombian government of President Álvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002, continue to this day. “Even Silence Has an End” comes after Rojas’s memoir and that of the Americans Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes. Betancourt’s setting aside of vengeance and her discovery of forgiveness can be construed as self-serving; alternatively, her ability to scrutinize herself and ruminate on nuance may highlight the profound differences that set her apart from the other hostages, differences thrown into relief during their years of forced cohabitation.

Betancourt’s recollections of the events leading to her capture, and her commentary on Uribe’s refusal to negotiate on behalf of the FARC hostages, help illuminate arguments being fought publicly in the present. The Colombian military staged a heroic rescue of Betancourt and 14 other hostages, including the Americans, in 2008. Betancourt recently asked the Colombian government for millions of dollars in damages, saying its negligence led to her kidnapping, though she appeared to soften her demands after they incited an uproar. (Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos, said she deserved a “world prize for ungratefulness.”)

Undoubtedly, vituperations will continue. But the significance of Betancourt’s memoir must not be obscured. Regardless of her liberation and journey toward forgiveness, the time lost with loved ones cannot be recovered, nor can the humiliations be undone. “The relief that comes from recovering my freedom,” Betancourt cautions, “cannot in any way be compared to the intensity of the suffering I have known.”

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