SEMANA INTERNATIONAL | 12/30/2008 12:00:00 AM
Freedom: the news story of 2008
More than 40 years ago the first kidnapping case was registered in Colombia. Since then, the country had not been so overwhelmed with joy as this year, when 22 people who had been kidnapped by the Farc returned to their homes.
The year had only just started when the subject of kidnapping and freedom was put again high on the agenda. Thanks to Hugo Chávez’ mediation, former vicepresidential candidate Clara Rojas and politician Consuelo González de Perdomo were able to see their families again. “We are being born again”, Rojas stated when she was freed, moments before she was able to reunite with her son Emmanuel, born in captivity, who was found to be living in a Bienestar Familiar home, the government-run family welfare agency.
On the 27th of February, four other political leaders were able to leave the jungle and enjoy freedom. Jorge Géchem, kidnapped in 2002, was released alongside Luis Eladio Pérez, Orlando Beltrán, and Gloria Polanco, all of whom had been taken hostage in 2001.
The most important moment this year came in July with operation Checkmate, when the Colombian army rescued 15 kidnap victims, including French-Colombian citizen Ingrid Betancourt and three North American contractors.
But the year of freedom was not only dominated by a spectacular military operation and unilateral freedom gestures by the Farc. In October, Óscar Tulio Lizcano escaped from the jungle after eight years with the help of guerrilla Wilson Bueno, a.k.a ‘Isaza’, who now lives in France.
But, apart from this good news, Colombia has still not fully recovered from kidnapping. There are still 25 political hostages and more than 400 who are held for extortion purposes.
SEMANA INTERNATIONAL presents the profiles of some of the most important people in 2008 who were involved in the struggle for freedom.
The rescued, escaped and freed from the FARC
For as long as they live, these people will have the year 2008 engrained in their memories. It was the year of their freedom. It was the arrival of that moment that was dreamed about for so many days and nights during the darkness of their captivity.
Their smiles and happiness portray the strength of knowing that they are survivors – of having won the battle. They can laugh with that certainty. It doesn’t matter what may or may not happen in the future. Nothing is more important than freedom.
They still haven’t finished telling their stories a thousand times over and crying about their painful memories. Each one jealously keeps many secrets from their time in the jungle. Those are secrets that they prefer to remain there. Only they understand what human beings and nature are capable of doing during years of being kidnapped. It only matters to them.
They have begun to reconstruct the present and muster the will to believe in the future. That will be, going forward, the driving power of their lives. Although these smiles reflect the calm that their spirits now have, they know that they will only feel complete when, standing next to them, are those who are still being held in the jungle.
Photograph (above) taken by Guillermo Torres in November 2008 at the offices of SEMANA in Bogotá
The citizen of the world
The year 2008 ended as it began: with the world following news about Íngrid Betancourt. No other Colombian generated so much interest as Betancourt. The year began with the entire world, still moved by the letter that she sent her mother and the haggard image of her, clamoring for freedom. There were fears of her death. That is why when she was rescued in July- in a prodigious operation- nobody could believe it. It was a miracle.
It was then, and in the following weeks and months, that the Colombian people could be witnesses of Betancourt’s transformation from a liberated politician to a universal citizen. Not only because of the recognitions she received (the French Legion of Honor and Spain’s Prince of Asturias Award) but also by those who wanted to be with her: European leaders, presidents from Latin America, Pope Benedict XVI and the world press. Ingrid is a superstar today. As the magazine People en español wrote, “Madonna had the privilege of meeting Íngrid Betancourt.”
Photograph (right, first from top to bottom) taken by Daniel Ochoa de Olza on October 24, 2008 during the ceremony of the Prince of Asturias Awards at the Teatro Campoamor in Oviedo, Spain.
The power of the net
On February 4, 14 million Colombians marched against the FARC in 200 cities in 40 different countries. One month earlier, Oscar Morales, from the solitude of his room in Barranquilla, created a Facebook group called “A Million Voices Against the FARC,” that in less than 12 hours after its creation already had 1,500 members. Rosa Cristina Parra, Pierre Onzaga, Carlos Santiago, Cristina Lucena, and 200 coordinators from the entire world joined him and, without knowing eachother, brought fellow Colombians together using new technological tools such as email, chat, and Skype.
The group was an antenna which brought the country together in one feeling. “It was a mix of rage, indignation and frustration,” says Morales. It was the result of a special moment in time resulting from the liberation of Emmanuel, son of Clara Rojas, and the letter by hostage Colonel Mendieta in which he refers to the “indifference of good people.” This unprecedented mobilization changed the image of the FARC and reached the heart of the jungle, where it gave strength to the hostages. “It showed the guerrillas that they are not the ‘people’s army,’” said Parra, who believes that the march had an effect on later guerrilla desertions.
Additionally, it showed the power of new technologies in organizing the civil society regarding specific causes, something that not even the founders of Facebook had ever imagined. Of course it changed the life of those young people in thousands of ways. “The ‘4-F’ mobilization,” says Morales, “made us take responsibility by becoming spokespersons for a society that had no voice. Our mission is that they do not become silent again.”
Photograph (right, second from top to bottom) taken by Guillermo Torres on November 27, 2008 at 5:19 p. m. in northern Bogotá
In 2008, it was confirmed that the number eight is his lucky number. On July 2 at 8 a.m., he was informed that several hostages would regain freedom. When Íngrid Betancourt arrived at the CATAM air base in Bogotá with the other rescued hostages, he was able to hug eight of them. “Las voces del secuestro,” or “Voices of kidnapping,” a radio program that transmits messages from family members to hostages held in the jungle, received eight prizes such as the National Peace Prize, the Simón Bolívar Journalist of the Year Award and Ondas from Spain. As if that were not enough, he won the lottery with number 838.
Since 1994, after suffering kidnapping first-hand, he started his radio program, but it was this year when it reached fame. Every hostage who has regained freedom becomes emotional when they speak about how Hoyos was the only oasis that they had every morning in that desert that is kidnapping.
The gratitude of those who are reborn after being held in the jungle is so deep that some of them gave him as a gift valuable personal objects such as the chains and the radio that appear in the photo. Now he is working to bring his experience to places that are also suffering the plague of kidnapping such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Mexico. The congratulatory words that he most remembers is from a colleague: “Herbin, you have earned a place in heaven… but you’re not going to be able to go up there if you continue gaining weight.”
Photograph (right, third) taken by Guillermo Torres on November 11, 2008 at 5:17 p. m. in Bogotá’s Cerros Orientales (the mountains bordering the city on the east)
The perfect combination
General Freddy Padilla de León and General Óscar Naranjo
It is not often possible to bring together men whose talent and experience can change the course of history. That happened in 2008 with the triumvirate that was formed between General Freddy Padilla de Leon, commander of the armed forces, and General Óscar Naranjo, the commander of the Colombian National Police, under the political direction of Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos.
Their strategic vision, the leadership that they have exercised of their respective troops and the creativity that they have demonstrated in breaking the paradigms of the war, have made this a black year for the guerrillas and drug cartels. The courage that they showed by confronting their enemies they also used to punish criminal and corrupt practices within their own ranks. Neither the FARC, nor the drug traffickers, nor the military will ever be the same after the rise of these men to the highest security positions in Colombia. Nevertheless, the challenge to fight against organized crime and drug trafficking continues to be an enormous one.
Photograph (right, last) taken by León Darío Peláez on December 18, 2008 at 9:15 a. m. at SEMANA’s offices in Bogotá