Thursday, July 03, 2008

Finally Free

It is a story that could only unfold in Colombia, a land mostly known for its strong coffee, blaring salsa music, and melodromatic soap operas on the one hand and its drugs, terrorism, and war on the other. The fitting end to the saga of Ingrid Betancourt's kidnapping and subsequent five and a half years of living hell came when the Colombian military, after infiltrating the FARC over a series of months, absconded away with Betancourt and 14 other victims in a tale more suited to a spy novel than real life. But, sometimes the truth is better than fiction and in a land where the truth is often dark and scary, joy is shining brightly from glistening cheeks and exaultant celebrations. Finally the nightmare is over.

This story begins in 2003 when Betancourt was running for president of this war weary Andean nation. Along with Clara Rojas, her pick for vice-president, and against the advice of the Colombian military who deemed the risks too high to justify, Betancourt traveled to southern Colombia to campaign in a guerrilla stronghold. Mere hours after entering the zone, Betancourt and Rojas were stopped by opportunistic guerrillas and disappeared from the world.

Over the years Betancourt became the FARC's prized possession, their ultimate bargaining chip, and one that seems to have been too valuable to have ever used. The subsequent capture of three American contractors joined Betancourt in misery deep within the impenatrable jungle with little to no hope of escape or rescue. Stories of failed escape attempts, constant harrassment, sickness and disease, and near torture like conditions filtered out to a world agast. And even when Rojas and a few others were freed, hope for the FARC's Four remained slim.

That is until now. Yesterday, the Colombian military launched a well-devised, perfectly executed plan. Playing the role of the guerrilla, the army landed a helicopter, painted white to resemble a commercial rental, in a clearing where the hostages were being held. The undercover commandos, wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and surrounded by guerrillas, convinced the jailors that a top FARC commander, Mono Jojoy, had organized the transfer so he could speak directly to Betancourt. Quickly convinced, the FARC soldiers allowed their hostages to be handcuffed and put on the aircraft, along with two guards. Moments later, they were airborn. As Betancourt described later, she heard something she didn't understand and turning, saw her former guards bound and naked on the chopper floor. It was then that the commando leader said words that will resonate in the hearts and minds of a nation forever, "We are Colombian military; you are free!"

After waiting so many years, the rescue was over in moments. In sum, the Army spent three and a half minutes amidst the FARC encampment and made their getaway without firing a shot or suffering a casualty. It was, in the words of Betancourt, an "impeccable" operation, flawless in design, flawless in execution.

Yet, back in Bogotá, amidst the jubilation on the tarmac, Betancourt reminded the world that as great as her freedom is, there are still an estimated 700 still held in dank jungle strongholds. This nation, so proud and rich in so many ways, still suffers. And for those families who still await the return of their beloved sons and daughters, one can't help but think yesterday's dramatic rescue remains bittersweet.



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