After four days with us here in Washington, recently freed FARC hostage Luis Eladio PÃ©rez, his wife and daughter left town on Saturday morning. They still seemed pretty energetic, even after two public forums, a press conference, several meetings in Congress, visits to the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon, media interviews, and visits to think-tanks and NGOs. On Friday, an unexpected but welcome addition to our group was Ãngrid Betancourt’s daughter, Melanie Delloye.
The visit took place during what turned out to be a peculiar week, with the extraditions of top paramilitary leaders and the Interpol certifications of the documents recovered from RaÃºl Reyes’s computer. This meant that Senator PÃ©rez was in a Washington that was unusually attuned to what has been happening in Colombia, though quite distracted from the plight of the FARC’s hostages.
If I had to list the three most important things I learned while accompanying Senator PÃ©rez last week, they would be as follows.
1. The hostages are avid radio listeners, quite informed about what is happening in Colombia and the world. Their guerrilla captors are unspeakably cruel, chaining the hostages by their necks, shooting at their feet to silence them or force them to walk faster, and denying medical care beyond provision of a single aspirin. They at least allow each to have a transistor radio to listen to the outside world, and provide fresh batteries every few weeks.
This allows the hostages to listen to Colombian radio programs that broadcast recorded messages from their relatives. Senator PÃ©rez called these programs “a lifeline,” at times their only reason for staying alive. (While it is impossible for a chained hostage to commit suicide, PÃ©rez said, he or she always has the option of dying quickly at the guerrillas’ hands merely by attempting escape.) One of the worst punishments Sen. PÃ©rez recalls was having his radio taken away for three months.
So many hours of radio listening have made the hostages very cognizant of events in the outside world. They have been following the U.S. primary elections, the para-politics scandal, and the war in Iraq. Though I am only a very occasional guest on Colombian radio, Senator PÃ©rez said he even remembered hearing me once, and wondering if I was related to Carolina Isackson, the wife of former President Virgilio Barco.
2. The three American hostages feel abandoned. Senator PÃ©rez was held on two occasions – late 2003-late 2004, and late 2006 until his February 2008 release – with Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, three U.S. citizen employees of a Defense Department contractor who have been FARC hostages since their plane went down in guerrilla territory in February 2003. He spent most of the last year of his captivity attached to Howes by a three-meter-long chain.
According to Sen. PÃ©rez’s account, the three Americans’ morale is low. They still suffer from untreated injuries resulting from their plane crash more than five years ago. They have battled jungle diseases like hepatitis, malaria and leishmaniasis.
Worse, they are convinced that their country has forgotten them, or somehow wishes to sweep them under the rug. Some of this owes to a sensible U.S. strategy to keep their profile low, in order to avoid encouraging the FARC to demand an even higher price for their release. But this strategy has gone so far as to exclude even any official greetings to fellow citizens who, it turns out, are closely following radio reports from their jungle captivity.
According to PÃ©rez, the three Americans noted with despair that during their recent visits to Colombia, neither President Bush (March 2007) nor Condoleezza Rice (January 2008) included in their remarks any message of support or solidarity – “not even a greeting.” They are sadly correct: neither U.S. leader mentioned the men by name, and they only discussed their situation at all in answer to reporters’ questions.
3. A military rescue attempt would be disastrous, but it may be attempted anyway. One of Sen. PÃ©rez’s main pleas was that the U.S. and Colombian governments not attempt to rescue the hostages militarily. The difficult terrain and the guerrillas’ rings of security around the hostage encampments, he explained, make the element of surprise almost impossible to achieve. Meanwhile, as has been tragically demonstrated before, the FARC have strict orders to kill their hostages at the first sign that a rescue attempt is underway.
Nonetheless, Sen. PÃ©rez came away from some official meetings with a strong feeling – unconfirmed but persistent – that a rescue attempt may be in the offing.
U.S. officials repeated to him the official line that a rescue attempt, though unlikely, is not an option that they are willing to remove from the table. However, there are indications that the U.S. and Colombian governments now have a better idea of where the hostages are being held. This is leading the Colombian military to attempt “humanitarian sieges,” among other military operations, in areas where hostages may be held.
All of the hostages, Sen. PÃ©rez says, hoped that a military rescue attempt would come, “Because that was the culture of death that we lived in. We all thought that even certain death was better than what we were going through.” Now that he is free, however, PÃ©rez is forcefully warning against a rescue attempt, which he is convinced will kill all of the hostages.
Instead, he advocates a creative approach to negotiations involving several other countries both as facilitators and as sources of political pressure. He is confident that, in the very least, such an approach – which he believes led to his release – can win freedom for the guerrillas’ four civilian, non-U.S. “exchangeable” hostages, including Ingrid Betancourt, in the very short term. I hope he is right.