SEMANA/Freedom | 11/7/2008 12:00:00 AM
The hostage and his kidnapper
The incredible story of Óscar Tulio Lizcano, the Colombian politician the FARC kidnapped eight years ago, who escaped with the help of his captor.
The freedom that joins them today was born during afternoons of playing chess six months ago when “Isaza” was named commander of the column that kidnapped Lizcano. Before, he was just another guerrilla with whom Lizcano occasionally drank a cup of coffee. Once he became commander, the newly promoted fighter felt sorry for the prisoner. He felt that he was being kept too isolated, that nobody talked with him and that he needed help. So before sunset, they sat in front of a board damaged by humidity and moved their pawns, towers, and knights around the chess board. It was during these games that they began to exchange stories.
Lizcano learned that this man, who had lost his left eye in the battlefield, was from the same part of Colombia as he was. His family lived in Riosucio and his mother knew about Lizcano’s political background, admired him, and she had told her son so. Once he had given these instructions to Lizcano, “Old man, don’t leave me, if there is a fight with the Army, I will protect you”. But the thought that he would one day help him find freedom didn’t even cross Lizcano’s mind.
On Saturday October 25th, “Isaza” simulated a game to tell him about the escape plan. In effect “Isaza” got all the details ready: the guards, the route, and the timing. During the escape Lizcano discovered how intelligent and skilled the guerrilla was and how he was careful with each step he took. Not in vain had he been in the FARC for 12 years. “He erased all traces, did not let me step on stones with the wet boots, made me walk on his footprints and made sure not to break any branches”, he remembers.
Those three days of escape accentuated the features of pain on Óscar Tulio’s face. He now says that they were the most difficult days of his long captivity. Maybe that’s because they were very recent and because he lived them intensely. They were the last days of his life, or the first days of his rebirth. Many times he felt like he was going to faint. “I slept in a cove that he made to protect me from shots or grenade shrapnel. We walked at night and only ate heart of palm, there wasn’t anything else”. “Isaza” was confident that they would make it.
That is why he carried him when the feet of “his old man” swelled up in pain and he didn’t let him sleep in order to not lose time. He knew that they didn’t have food and he avoided any contact with the civilian population, because he feared that any farmer could be a member of the Farc militias. That is how they arrived at a farmhouse where they saw an Army camp and they took a chance. They went to the river bank and ironically spent an hour and a half trying to get the attention of the soldiers. So “Isaza” decided to show the two rifles and grenades that he had in his hands It was risky, but with that they caught the attention of the soldiers. “During the trip in the canoe that we crossed the river in, he told me many times, ‘Old man, don’t abandon me because they will kill me,’” Lizcano said.
They didn’t kill “Isaza” and Oscar Tulio is now back with his family. Both are now free. Although for “Isaza”, prison time still hasn’t been discarded. His decision to save the hostage may help him go to France, as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe promised him. However, the lawyers are still analyzing the situation. Lizcano promised him that he would make sure the government keeps its promise. Now Lizcano is saving “Isaza.”
The beginning of the nightmare
It was in Riosucio, Caldas where Lizcano was kidnapped 3,000 days ago. On August 5, 2000, the conservative party congressman was at a farm in his home town seeking votes for his candidate for mayor. During the campaign trip he was approached by a group of guerrillas who without hesitation screamed at him, “You are being held and will stay with us until a humanitarian exchange is negotiated with the government.” From that moment on his fate was determined. The jungle would be his home, daily walks his only exercise, and hunger his daily fare. For six months he was held with five other hostages, who quickly gained their freedom after the payment of ransom. He only found out about them through the radio program which transmits messages to the kidnapped.
Lizcano was always in the jungles of San Antonio de Chamí, Risaralda, on the border with Chocó (the northern department on the Pacific coast). They moved him very little and, though he was not fed delicacies, he ate three times a day. But everything changed with the government of Álvaro Uribe and his policy of democratic security. With it began military operations, the rationing of food, sudden displacements and the change of guerrillas who watched over him. The harassment and pressure from the Colombian military was such that, in eight years during which he was in the hands of the FARC, he would know 17 commanders.
Curiously, Lizcano was afraid that Uribe would come to power. That is what he told his wife Martha Arango in one of the four proofs of life that he was able send. “If they elect him president the possibilities to get out of here will be few.” Today he supports Uribe’s re-election and says that “he is an honorable man.”
Lizcano will leave politics. He is clear about that. He will leave that to his son Mauricio, 32, who is currently a representative for the lower house for the U Party, the main pro-Uribe political party. He will instead pursue academics, reading, writing poems, and recuperating time lost with his family.
During his entire captivity Lizcano lived alongside death. The guerrilla group that held him experienced many tragedies. He was a witness to an execution, a suicide, the destructive power of landmines, and the voracity of the rivers of Chocó, in whose waters four guerrillas drowned. They constantly had to cross mined fields. “To survive we had to always walk one by one.” The subhuman conditions of his captivity made him want to stop living. But he never dwelled on that, despite the fact that one of the guerrillas showed him how to take his life. “One night one of them came over, said goodbye and said and said ‘old man, take care of yourself, you will get out of here,’ and a little later they carried his dead body out of the tent after he had poisoned himself with cyanide. He had had a lover’s quarrel.”
He also won’t forget Alex, the young guerrilla who after four years of his captivity, offered him the opportunity to escape. “Out of fear I didn’t believe him. The next morning they found Alex during his escape and executed him. He had bad luck, a guerrilla column found him and he threw a grenade at them that didn’t explode.” He also remembers with horror the night when he woke up in the middle of a burst of fire of an Army helicopter that was attacking some a trench 200 meters away from his. “To dodge the bullets I had to hide behind a big tree and slowly rotate my body to protect myself as the helicopter moved.”
As if that were enough, bad news in Colombia added to his agony. The first was the assassination of his friend Orlando Sierra, director of the La Patria newspaper of Manizales. “I cried a lot and was so broken down that I threw the radio to the ground.” Later his youngest son Juan Carlos was kidnapped in 2006 by the EPL, the Ejército Popular de Liberación guerrilla group, in the department of Risaralda. “That was a tragedy because I knew that although the extortion would be paid, they could kill him, but thank God the Army rescued him.” Another news that affected his own captivity was the murder by the FARC of “Cacica” Consuelo Araújo, a prominent political leader from the Cesar department. “From that day on they chained me to the trees.” Then came the news about the murder by the FARC of the regional assembly deputies from the Valle department in June 2007.
His abused body couldn’t take any more. Every night he suffered terrible chills. The walks were unending. They started at five in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon and the scarcity of food was the rule. The guerrillas only gave him water with salt and in the best of times he ate hard lentils, rats, monkeys, sloths and heart of palms. “I vomited a lot. To swallow my food I had to hold my nose because the smell was so foul.” He became ill with so many jungle sicknesses that he himself attended to his medical needs and even prescribed medicines to several of his captors. “I learned how to read a pharmaceutical handbook.”
In freedom he has spoken about details of his kidnapping, but one story in particular moved public opinion. His captivity was so strict that he was not allowed to speak with his captors and in order to keep his brain active he created ten imaginary friends. He made them out of branches on which he hung notebook paper with faces and names. His attachment to those friends was so evident that some guerrillas called him crazy. “They were the names of my students at the university. I taught philosophy and history classes. I used material from the radio program of Diana Uribe, a historian who hosts a popular radio show, which I taped on three cassettes that I had”.
In the jungle he was always connected to the Colombian reality thanks to radio. He fearfully experienced the attack on the camp of “Raúl Reyes” in March 2008 and the death of FARC commander “Iván Ríos.” “After Gloria Polanco and three other hostages were released this February, I received a letter from the commander Rubí Morro, in which he told me that I was the next one to be released, but everything fell through after what happened with “Reyes.”’ Because he was convinced about the need for a negotiated settlement of the conflict, he believed in the good will of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba.
Óscar Tulio Lizcano is another survivor. The physical recuperation will come from doctors who will cure him from the malnutrition, dehydration, cerebral malaria, leishmaniasis, leptospirosis, urinary tract and digestive infections and the anemia from which he suffered. He is 62 years old and still has many more years to live.
The Lizcano family is resting on a farm outside of Cali. “Isaza” is in a military garrison in Pereira. They think about each other mutually. One imagines how life will be in France and if he will really arrive there some day. The other thinks about his poetry, which helped him stay alive, convinced that at least one good thing came about from his kidnapping, and that is that they took him as a politician and he returned as a poet.