Ex-captive in Colombia recalls harrowing break

Times Staff Writer

Not a single one of his 2,224 days in captivity went by without Fernando Araujo thinking of escaping his captors. When his opportunity finally came amid the gunfire and chaos of a New Year’s Eve military attack against the leftist rebels who were holding him, he took it.

With army helicopters whirring and soldiers firing overhead just yards above the tree-covered camp, he scurried away on all fours for the first 100 yards, waded across a small pond, then took off in a sprint through spiny underbrush and didn’t stop for at least a mile, leaving his six-year ordeal behind. He was free.

“I was obsessed with escaping. I kept exercising, running in place, doing push-ups, the whole time I was a prisoner, just to be ready,” Araujo, looking fit if weathered at 51, said during an interview last week at the oceanfront hotel his family owns here. “I never looked back.”

A former Colombian development minister who was kidnapped while jogging in Cartagena in December 2000, Araujo spent six years being shuttled by rebels from one makeshift camp to another in remote northern Colombia.

“I was always alone, never held with other hostages,” he said. “The guerrillas treated me well -- that’s part of the rules. We are merchandise that they don’t want damaged. But the boredom and uncertainty sometimes drove me to desperation.”


Nation enthralled

Araujo’s escape, which has held this nation in thrall since his reappearance and reunion with his family, has raised public awareness of the plight of more than 3,000 kidnapping victims still held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, many for as long or longer than Araujo.

The FARC and other guerrilla groups have carried out kidnappings for decades to raise money, make ideological points and barter for the release of comrades held in military prisons. Although the pace of kidnappings has declined since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, he has refused to negotiate any exchanges, and the number of hostages has remained high.

Pais Libre, an advocacy group formed by Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, himself a former kidnapping victim, estimates that more than 23,000 Colombians have been kidnapped since 1996. More than 1,200 hostages have died in captivity or during abortive rescue attempts.

The agony of captives and their families is among the saddest chapters of Colombia’s long-running civil war. Families live in a wrenching limbo and often are torn apart during their loved ones’ absences.

Araujo’s wife left him during his captivity -- a fact he learned only upon his return to civilization.

His escape has also raised the issue of whether Uribe is doing enough to secure the release of the captives, and whether he is taking the proper path with his recent avowal to pursue only military rescues like Araujo’s, instead of so-called “humanitarian accords” leading to prisoner exchanges with rebels.

“The process seems completely frozen, with a lack of political will on both sides,” said Marleny Orjuela, head of Asfamipaz, a group representing the families of 35 police officers and soldiers who are among the kidnapped. Previous Colombian presidents agreed to exchanges, with the last one occurring in 2001 under then-President Andres Pastrana, who spent much of his term trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a peace accord with the FARC. But Uribe has taken a harder line and there have been no exchanges since he took office in August 2002.

Kidnap victims’ advocacy groups oppose military rescues, saying they are too risky. They cite the 1991 killing of newscaster Diana Turbay, a main figure in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book “News of a Kidnapping”; and the 2002 killings of Guillermo Gaviria, the former governor of Antioquia state, and national peace commissioner Gilberto Echeverri. All were killed during abortive military rescues.

Araujo, in fact, was not rescued during the New Year’s Eve operation that involved a team of army commandos sent to the Montes de Maria area in Bolivar state where intelligence indicated he was being held. Rather, after the chaos of the attack, he wandered for six days in desert and scrub land, surviving on cactus water and yucca plants, before meeting a friendly peasant who led him to police in the town of San Agustin.

“I had to keep walking because I knew not to approach farmers who lived near the camp. They could have been collaborators who would have given me up to the rebels, which would have meant death,” Araujo said. “So I kept walking.”

Araujo’s four sons and parents had reluctantly approved of the military rescue, after the military told them late last month it had reliable information on his FARC captors’ whereabouts. “Why we agreed is a difficult question to answer,” said Araujo’s oldest son, Luis Ernesto, 27.

“There were inherent risks and dangers. But we had to assume them. We trusted the military and President Uribe.”

Used for bartering

Many of the hostages in FARC custody are like Araujo, high-profile political figures who number about 60 whom the guerrillas have set aside specifically as barter for an exchange for an estimated 500 imprisoned guerrillas. The rest of the hostages, more than 3,000, are being held for ransom.

The high-profile captives include presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, captured in 2003; 12 local congressmen from Cauca state, taken in 2002; three U.S. defense contractors, captured in 2003; and Gloria Lozada, the wife of the former governor of Huila state, who has been held captive since July 2001.

Lozada’s two sons, Jaime Felipe, 22, and Juan Sebastian, 20, know the horror of their mother’s situation: They were kidnapped along with her when rebels dressed as policemen stormed their apartment building in Neiva, the state capital, and broke the door down. A half-dozen others in their building were also taken hostage.

The boys were held until their father secured their release in July 2004 by paying a ransom. But the last sign of life of their mother was a video of her sent by the FARC nearly four years ago.

In a cruel turn, their father was killed by the FARC in December 2005 as he drove back to Neiva from a political meeting, reportedly because the FARC claimed he owed them money for his sons’ release.

Like Araujo, Jaime Felipe and his brother were moved from camp to camp every couple of weeks, to evade the constant military operations. He said the living conditions were “plenty difficult.”

“We weren’t in a jail or behind wires, but we were watched 24 hours a day. You live under difficult conditions, in the jungle, very humid, with lots of insects and animals,” Jaime Felipe said. “But the worst is the boredom.”

Life in captivity

Araujo said that for the first several months of his captivity, he was bound by a tether to a tree, which the guerrillas said was punishment for his resisting kidnapping. Afterward, he was never bound, but was under armed guard 24 hours daily.

Araujo said he was forbidden to talk to his captors except with permission from rebel commanders. Not long after his capture, they gave him a radio, which he said served as his lifeline. He wrote radio news summaries for the guerrillas that were used in nightly ideological discussions. “They loved any kind of news about terrorist strikes against Western countries, and also anything having to do with Hugo Chavez,” Araujo said, referring to the leftist Venezuelan president.

The radio also enabled him to tune in to programs over the RCN network that relays messages from family members every morning. He got about 100 from his sons and parents over the six years, wrote them all down, and reread them every day. “I never felt forgotten, thanks to that radio.”

Araujo said that during the six years of captivity, he dreamed frequently of being free but then woke to find he was a prisoner. Today, he said, “I find myself fearing my freedom is a waking dream and that I will wake up to find I am still captive.”