Freed Colombian hostages describe captivity
CARACAS, Venezuela ” Clara Rojas, one of two hostages freed after years held captive by Colombian rebels, gave birth to her son nearly four years ago by kitchen-knife Caesarean and has not seen him since he was taken from the jungle at 8 months old.
“Very soon I will meet him, and little by little we’ll start sharing what for us is a rebirth,” Rojas told reporters late Friday in Caracas, where she and fellow captive Consuelo Gonzalez met their families and thanked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for engineering their release.
Long treks through the forest, prisoners held in chains, and terrifying aerial raids also marked some six years in captivity. Wearing a photo of her son dangling from her neck, Rojas said it wasn’t until two weeks ago that she learned what had happened to 3-year-old Emmanuel, hearing on the radio that he was in a foster home in Bogota.
The handover of Rojas and Gonzalez was the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, freed some 300 soldiers and police officers.
Rojas ” an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who remains in captivity ” spoke in general terms about the rebel who fathered her son, reportedly a rank-and-file guerrilla named Rigo.
“I don’t have any information about the boy’s father. What’s more, I don’t have any idea if he even knows he’s the boy’s father,” Rojas said at a news conference, holding the hand of her elderly mother. “The information I have is that he could even have died. I don’t have any confirmation.”
After she learned she was pregnant, Rojas shared the news with her fellow captives ” “this happiness but also of course the anxiety.”
She was later separated from the rest and moved to a tent where she waited out the final months alone, sleeping on a cot and trying to “have the peace to face the situation of the birth.”
She asked for a doctor, but none came. When the contractions came in April 2004, it was the start of a full day of difficult labor, and Rojas said the rebels, including a male nurse who was in charge, explained she would need a Caesarean section because there were risks to the baby and her own life.
“And I said, well, I’ll put it in the hands of God,” Rojas said. When she awoke from the anesthesia, one rebel told her: “Clara, don’t move. … It’s a boy.”
She named him Emmanuel, “because he was a gift from God.” The boy suffered a broken arm at birth when he was pulled out by the nurse, Rojas said.
When the boy was 8 months old, Rojas said she allowed the rebels to take him away for two weeks to receive treatment for the broken arm and leishmaniasis, a parasite malady common in the jungle.
Rojas didn’t hear of the boy again until Dec. 31, when she heard Colombian President Alvaro Uribe say on the radio that the child was no longer with her captors.
DNA tests later confirmed the boy had been living in a Bogota foster home for more than two years under a different name.
Rojas said she will return to Bogota in the coming days to reclaim him.
Gonzalez, a former congresswoman, told Colombia’s Caracol Radio that some hostages would sleep, bathe and wash their clothes chained by the neck.
She said her daily routine of sleeping on the jungle floor and surviving on rice and beans was interrupted occasionally by aerial raids. “When bombs are falling all around you, it’s when you really understand the horror of war,” she said.
Rojas was kidnapped in February 2002 along with Betancourt, who was campaigning for the presidency. They soon tried to escape but got lost and were caught. As punishment, Rojas said, the rebels chained them to trees by the ankles.
The guerrillas also brought them “an enormous tiger that was all bloody, as if to say, ‘Look at the danger”‘ that awaits in the forest, she told Colombia’s W Radio. The wildcat was apparently a dead jaguar.
Rojas has not seen Betancourt since they were separated three years ago.
“I’m worried about her health,” Rojas said. “It hurts me deeply. … I hope she is free soon.”
In a video released in November, Betancourt appeared pale and haggard ” a dramatic change for a politician who once was a fitness buff. Rojas said she was encouraged by France’s pressure on behalf of Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, and other captives.
The FARC is the hemisphere’s biggest rebel force with 14,000 fighters, mostly peasants it says are fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth. It funds itself mainly by drug trafficking, and the government says it holds some 750 hostages, either for ransom or political leverage.
Asked if she sees the FARC as a terrorist group, Rojas did not answer directly but called it “a criminal organization,” condemning its kidnappings as “a total violation of human dignity” and saying some captive police and soldiers are constantly chained.
Gonzalez said she was never put in chains but that the entire experience was “a sort of torture.”
Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman and Carlos Gonzalez in Bogota, Colombia, and Jorge Rueda in Caracas contributed to this report.