BOGOTA, Colombia -- A little wild pig named Josefo, abandoned by his mother, helped keep Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero sane.
For nearly 13 years, Forero was one of the “forgotten” hostages held by the leftist rebels known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. During that unending stretch of his life, spent chained to other prisoners round the clock or confined in barbed-wire pens, he found mental escape in bonding with jungle animals.
The career police sergeant tells of the tiny bit of happiness he found befriending monkeys, parrots and, finally, Josefo, whom he initially kept alive by feeding him milk with a syringe (and who later got hooked on coffee). He says he identified with the pig who had been left behind by his herd.
He felt like he’d been forsaken too, as his FARC captors slowly released all their other political and military hostages. Through it all, he said, one question kept hammering inside his head.
“What about us?”
His ordeal didn’t end until seven weeks ago, when he and nine other men became the last military hostages released by the FARC, bringing to a close a terrible chapter in this country’s long civil conflict.
Speaking this month at a police recreation facility where he is temporarily billeted as he undergoes psychological analysis and counseling, Forero seemed wound tight but in good spirits — and eager to joke in the English he learned from another hostage in the jungle camps.
“Josefo helped make up for the loss of my wife and family,” said Forero, 43, who at 5'2" is short but athletic. “We all need to give and receive affection, and having a little animal to take care of was a distraction from all the stress we lived under.”
But Forero also described the dark side of his time away, the “many humiliations” he suffered in FARC captivity, such as never being given toothpaste, insect repellent or decent clothing, and the 5-foot chain that bound him to a comrade on forced marches, in the latrines, in their bunks.
The rebels never beat him, he said, but their killing of fellow prisoner Edgar Byron Murcia in 2001 for trying to escape was all the intimidation he needed.
“I have more sympathy now for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust,” Forero said. “Before I was captured, I saw pictures of them looking out from behind the wires, of their suffering. Now I see myself in their faces.”
Most of all, he spoke of wanting to make up for time lost with his three children. He last saw one of them as an 8-year-old boy; now the son is himself the parent of a boy.
“That’s my purpose in life, to see them … advance, to become professionals, to travel abroad, to make the most of their lives,” Forero said.
Over the last 15 years, the FARC has taken about 500 military and political hostages. The practice of kidnapping for political ends gained the rebels little public sympathy, however, and served to discredit their movement in the eyes of many Colombians. The group still holds as many as 400 civilian hostages, according to the Free Country Foundation, a hostage advocacy group.
Forero’s release in April came amid renewed hopes for a peace agreement between the government and the FARC, which have been at war since the mid-1960s. But as often happens here, optimism was soon eclipsed by terror. On May 15, former Interior Minister Fernando Londono was wounded and his driver and bodyguard killed by a bomb as he drove through a Bogota shopping district. Some officials are blaming the attack on the FARC.
Captured in July 1999 when rebels overran his base in the central state of Meta, Forero spent the first few years in a jungle prison camp with up to 60 other captives. For a time they included Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors who were kidnapped in 2003 when their reconnaissance plane crashed.
In the latter years of captivity, he and his nine fellow prisoners were constantly on the move and taken on forced marches every few days, chained in pairs, as the FARC tried to elude detection and “smart” bombs funded by theU.S. militaryaid program known as Plan Colombia.
He and his comrades worried they had been forgotten as the higher-profile politicians, officers and the three Americans were released or rescued.
“It took four years for them to get to us after Operation Jaque,” Forero said with a smile, referring to the raid in which Colombian commandos posing as humanitarians rescued Betancourt and the Americans. “Maybe we were too far away, or too unimportant.”
The frustration finally drove him and a fellow prisoner, Sgt. Jorge Trujillo, to escape in late 2010. They spent a month on the lam, chained together like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the film “The Defiant Ones,” trying to reach an army outpost before the rebels found them.
In the end, they were betrayed by peasants who alerted the rebels, but Forero says he feels no bitterness. “That was FARC territory, so they had no choice. The guerrillas would have killed them if they hadn’t given us up.”
Unlike in Murcia’s case, the FARC did not kill them for fleeing, for reasons Forero doesn’t understand.
As the years passed, Forero became adept at inventing ways of keeping his mind off the life and family he was missing. He made dozens of key rings and pendants from the fangs of jungle cats and claws of giant armadillos that the FARC hunted for food.
But no amount of mind games could take his mind completely off the misery of living in the open jungle, with no protection against the dozens of kinds of insects with bites that cause malaria, which Forero contracted several times; severe headaches; and leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite transmitted by sand flies.
Forero became the prisoners’ unofficial tailor, taking apart their ragged clothes and sewing them back together to learn the craft. He read the Bible four times through and found God. Over and over, he imagined building a three-story house, block by block, in his native Villavicencio, where he, his wife, Norma, and their children and parents could live.
He stuck to a rigid routine that left little time for “thinking and thinking.” But depression would inevitably creep in. “We felt totally forgotten. The guerrillas didn’t bother to tape ‘proof of life’ videos, so my wife went six years with no news of me.”
But at least he had Josefo. Although the wild pigs, known as sainos, can be vicious and aggressive in herds, Josefo was Forero’s pet and the prisoners’ mascot for about six months. One of the rescue operation’s enduring images was that of Josefo trotting after Forero across the tarmac of Villavicencio airport after his release.
The animal learned all sorts of tricks, like fetching bars of soap from the guerrilla side of the compound, responding to voice commands and becoming a habitual coffee drinker. “He gnashed his teeth or nudged me with his snout when he wanted coffee,” Forero said.
At least until Forero finishes his counseling, Josefo now lives on the farm of Alan Jara, a onetime governor and FARC hostage who taught Forero English and Russian in captivity.
After years of rumors of impending freedom, Forero didn’t get his hopes up much when his captors told him in October that he soon would be released.
“We believed it only when we saw the helicopters coming to get us,” Forero said of the April 2 rescue led by Brazilian pilots and Red Cross officials.
Forero talked about his adjustment to modern life — and coming to grips with what he missed while in captivity.
“I walked from a totally savage world into a new century, " Forero said. “What’s changed? There are a lot more cars on the streets and electronic gadgets I have to learn to use.”
Apart from a promotion in rank, a computer and medical treatment, Forero said he hasn’t received any special financial compensation from the government for his years as a prisoner. He said his goal now is to go abroad, perhaps as a military attache in a foreign embassy.
After all he’s been through, is he bitter? He says no, although flashes of rancor surface when the subject turns, of all things, to soccer and the Bogota team that during his years of torment never succeeded in winning a championship.
“In the end, I couldn’t waste my time feeling sorry for those losers,” he said, his voice suddenly rising. “I only cared about winners in the jungle. Otherwise I just became more desperate.”
No one owes him anything for his lost years, he said. It is he who owes his wife, for waiting for him, for educating his children on her own and “bringing them up as responsible persons.”
“You learn in captivity you can take anything difficult and turn it into something positive. Letting rancor build up, you become bitter and intolerant,” Forero said. “I learned from God I have to do more for my family. I used to drink too much and was unfaithful to my wife.
“Now, I’m looking for the road to responsibility.”
Kraul is a special correspondent.