SEMANA/Hero | 10/17/2008 12:00:00 AM
A guardian angel
This is the story of Herbin Hoyos, the man who provides hope to the hundreds of Colombians kidnapped by the Farc guerrillas, through his radio program “Las voces del secuestro” (The voices of kidnapping) .
After a long trip in an SUV and another on foot through the jungles of Colombia, he arrived at a camp the following afternoon. “What impacted me most was seeing a man whose right arm was chained to a tree. His name was Nacianceno Murcia Correa and he was 62 years old". With his free hand, he showed me a radio he had, taking it out from underneath a plastic tarp which covered his body. The radio had been his only companion in the oblivion of his two years in captivity. “Hey, aren’t you the one from that program? What happened to you on Sunday when you didn’t finish your show?” he asked. Herbin, who couldn’t believe that he had a listener in such a remote place, explained to him what had happened. “You journalists should do something for us. Could you imagine that through this device I could hear messages sent to me from someone? From my wife, my kids?” said Murcia. Herbin promised him that when he was freed he would do just that.
The first broadcast of “Las voces del secuestro,” (the voices of kidnapping), took place on April 10th, 12 days after the journalist was rescued by the Army during combat with the Farc. “Those who are kidnapped hear us, and from now on we are going to be with them,” were his words. That is the way it has been ever since. The first day he received 40 calls and in that month he had a list of 200 people in captivity that he would reach out to on a regular basis. The program has had more than 16,000 cases and every weekend morning, no matter whether from Iraq or Chechnya, his voice continues to alleviate the loneliness and desperation of those in captivity. The program has never been interrupted although he has covered eleven international conflicts since it first began. “The idea is to create goals for those in captivity - dreams to fulfill when they return- so that they don’t give up.” For this work, Herbin Hoyos just recently earned two important recognitions: the Simon Bolivar journalist of the year award and the National Peace Prize, which he shares with freed soldier William Perez. Perez helped save Ingrid Betancourt’s life when she was in captivity.
Hoyos’ program has helped family members of kidnapping victims feel closer to their loved ones. Not long ago Herbin invited Jenny Mendieta to work with him at Las Voces del Secuestro. Mendieta is a young woman who hopes that her most devoted listener is her father, Lt. Col. Luis Mendieta, who has been held in captivity for more than ten years. “I have direct communication with him, and in each broadcast I feel like I am right next to him, there in the jungle,” she says.
But perhaps nobody can describe the program’s effects better than that audience being held captive. That is the case of former congresswoman Gloria Polanco, who called Herbin her guardian angel, after she as freed in February of this year. “It was my sustenance, my life and I anxiously awaited Saturdays at midnight. It moved me when he reported that my kids, who had been kidnapped with me, were free. I cried when he painfully informed me of the assassination of my husband, Jaime Losada, and he sent me a hug of solidarity from afar.” Herbin hasn’t forgotten how difficult it was to find the appropriate words to transmit that terrible news. “Gloria, you have to be calm, because from heaven your husband will be there with you. That is the way it will be when you are free and from then on forever”.
Herbin witnessed all of the dramas that kidnapping generates. Like when the then wife of former minister Fernando Araújo (who escaped from the Farc in early 2007), not knowing whether or not he was still alive, sent him the message asking for him to understand why she had decided to start a new life, as the uncertainty was killing her. Or when a four-year-old boy asked his father to come back soon because “the ‘raton Pérez’ (the tooth fairy) had taken away his teeth and he wouldn’t bring him a present if his father didn’t return”.
He painfully thinks of Chikao Muramatsu, the kidnapped Japanese businessman who was killed by the Farc. After news of his kidnapping came out, his family began to send a cassette every two months with messages to the program. One time, Herbin asked some visiting Japanese journalists to translate , with correct pronunciation, some of the words that he had written for Murmatsu. “I learned a repertoire in Japanese that included phrases such as ´keep faith and hope´ to tell him every week. I dreamed about one day meeting him, but they killed him. I later spoke with the guerrilla who was responsible for his death who cynically told me that he was such a noble man that he voluntarily cooked for his kidnappers”.
According to Herbin, he has given some 11,000 “freedom hugs”, a phrase coined by him to describe his meetings with the freed hostages. “At that time I tell them that I will forever be their brother.” He still recalls the day a man came to the studio in rags. His name was Vicente Arroyave, and had just escaped the jungle. The first thing he did was go to the studio in order to claim his hug. “You saved my life,” he said. During his captivity he had tried to kill himself on three occasions because his captors told him that his wife had left him and that his children were headed on the wrong track. “Like a miracle, one day they gave him a radio and when he turned it on, he heard the voices of his family telling him that they were waiting for him,” says Hoyos.
After the happiness that freedom produces, the freed hostage begins one of the most difficult stages. “Many times they cannot reconstruct their lives. Psychological rehabilitation can’t happen without the economic means to be able to start again,” he says. That is why he recently created a fund for their return to freedom, to open up an account of $1,500 USD for each of the 26 police and military members who were kidnapped, as well as civilians of limited resources, with the support of the producers of the film La Milagrosa (The Miracle Worker), who donated a part of the film’s box office earnings.
When he’s not working on the program or at his television production business, it’s possible that Herbin is flying his ultra-light plane along with a newly freed friend. As he is not only a journalist but also sociologist and pilot, it occurred to him that the best way to help the released hostage is to give them the chance to see the jungle from above. “It looks small and non-threatening”, he adds.
Herbin says that he has received several threats. Nevertheless he doesn´t plan on retracting his promise that he made to Nacianceno, who died ten years ago, two years after being freed. Each time he gives a “freedom hug” Herbin is reminded of the words that Nacianceno said to him when they first met. “Thank you very much for never abandoning me”.