March 29, 2009
In 2003, three American men, civilian contractors, crashed their plane in the southern highlands of Colombia. They were promptly picked up by FARC guerillas and held prisoner for five and a half years. This spring Morrow publishers have put out their book, Out of Captivity.This story was of particular interest to me because in 1987 I bought a magnificent hill in southern Colombia. My hill was 15 acres, with two bamboo forests, a river, and a coffee plantation. The coffee was cultivated by a collective of growers from the local village of San Agustin. My hill was home to eucalyptus trees, banana trees, orange trees, mango trees, lemon, lime and guanaba trees. Yucca and potatoes and peanuts grew out of the crimson earth. I loved this place on sight and quickly set about building a house with no guest rooms. Because if I was sure of only one thing it was that no guests would ever be visiting.
After five years, the FARC dropped by for a visit. Unfortunately, not with a welcoming casserole. At gun point they suggested a three day evacuation plan with instructions to get home and let ?my president? know that they were the ?good guys?.
Gun-toting guerillas aside I have fond memories of my hill in Colombia and I was saddened to read that what had been my holiday destination was described by the three American hostages as ?hell?.
At the start of their captivity, the Americans were indignant and scared and clung to each other for comfort. This bond took a bashing as months grew into years and life in the jungle presented them with unprecedented hardships. While their own friendships fluctuated, they remained united against their captors. They never befriended the FARC and only saw them as dangerous terrorists and they despised them and their ?commie? ideals.
Gradually the three Americans noticed that these ?guerillas? were mostly children in their teens?simple people who had been promised a raft of lies in exchange for their muscle. These people were so easily duped because their own lives were horror shows of backward living with zero possibility of improvement or opportunity
The hostages, to the quietude of their notebooks, admitted that they were lured into accepting high-risk employment in the Colombian jungle by fat pay checks. Now they dream of freedom and comfort once taken utterly for granted.
The FARC are comprised mainly of ?campesinos?; country folk who live hours by foot up mountains. Their houses are one-room structures made of mud and cow shit with corrugated iron roofs and dirt floors. The ?kitchen? is outside?a wood burning oven?and that?s it. Livestock roam through scratching at fleas. It is the middle ages, rife with rumor and misinformation.
For the average campesino what they think they know of the USA is often a blend of myths. Many believe all Americans are gangsters who have no morals. That they are super human, bionic, ?Rambos? with direct access to heads of government. Some believe Americans are equipped with micro chips implanted in their skin who can be tracked down anywhere on the planet.
The hostages complained rigorously about the food, the clothes they were given to wear, the mud they slipped on and the harsh lifestyle. This incessant whining was a legitimate surprise to the FARC and at odds with their idea of all Americans as bad-ass ?Rambos?.
Half the time the prisoners were frantic with fear for their lives and the rest of the time they considered whether it would be better to be killed so as not to have to endure the miserable experience.
The FARC think these Americans are pussies. After all, this is their life. They tramp in these same rubber boots, up and down this muddy landscape every day and wonder when the world will come rescue them from their misery. This is exactly why they are fighting.
The FARC ask ?Why are you attacking us??
The answer is: ?We are attacking the drug trade and you are involved.?
The FARC say: ?We have nothing to do with drugs, we only tax them.?
The Americans observed that the Colombians did not indulge in drugs. Instead they were addicted to sugar and would wolf down bricks of ?canella?.
The Americans remain convinced there is a thread of logic to their circumstances. Daily they nag, ?what?s going on??, ?where are you taking us?? endlessly prying for information. The answer they get is: ?Quien sabe?? They don?t know. They do not have a plan beyond evading capture.
The FARC are given orders to keep their wards alive and relatively healthy. But most important is not to be caught by the Colombian army. So they move their prisoners constantly.
The FARC don?t like ?prisoner duty?. It?s not what they signed up for. They were seduced by the hope of a better life and they find themselves running jungle hostels. They wanted grandeur and they ended up on a catering and hospitality detail. They say, ?We are your hostages because we have to keep you alive.?
The Americans are warned not to attempt escape. They are told the Army will kill them and blame it on the guerillas, ?to sully our reputation?.
Meanwhile there is the promise of glory ahead. The FARC talk excitedly about how, in order to properly release the hostages they will need a huge ceremonial event with ambassadors and bigwigs and international press.
While the Americans overlook the sadness in the lives of these tricked teenagers outfitted with gum boots and rifles and responsibilities, they do gradually notice the extraordinary beauty of their surroundings. After several months their notebooks fill with mentions of the staggering views. The variety of flowers they?d never seen before. The dramatic rain storms that come and go in a matter of minutes. One hostage writes of a butterfly, ?it was the most beautiful butterfly I?d ever seen.?
Life in the jungle on the run from the army was chock full of absurdities. All about tarps, chicken soup and rubber boots, nightly campfires and guitars and songs.
The Americans marvel at the skills the FARC have with their machetes. They interpret this level of skill as proof of how long they?ve been hiding out in the jungle. In reality, the machete is the only tool they have been using for generations. They are adept at it from habit.
When I was building my house I would fly down with bags of power tools. I?d spread out the techno wizardry and the workers would look them over. Approvingly checking out each item. Then they?d pick up their machete and a rock and get back to work.
Today the hostages are free and the FARC hasn?t changed much, despite the interaction little understanding has been gained and we have all retreated to the comfort of our respective world views. And I wonder if anyone is enjoying my house on the hill.
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