The former prisoner of the Colombian FARC on life in the jungle, coming to forgive, and Emmanuel, her son born in captivity.
For the first time since being released, she studied herself closely in the hotel room mirror. She didn’t recognize the scar from the caesarean, her drawn features, or her wrinkles, but the light in her eyes and smile were familiar. She thought: I’m still here, alive, it’s me. I’m still myself. It was January 10, 2008 and Clara Rojas had just been released unilaterally by the FARC guerrilla (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) after being held captive in the jungle for six years. Her release was mostly due to the Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, a longstanding advocate of negotiations and an inspiring figure of the Colombian peace movement, and to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Rojas’s story made front-page news all over the world. A lawyer from Bogotá, she had led the electoral campaign of Ingrid Betancourt, who was running for President for the Partido Verde Oxigeno (Green Oxygen Party). Rumor had it that had Betancourt won, Rojas would have been appointed her deputy. When Rojas joined Betancourt that fateful February day for a rally in San Vicente del Caguán, a scorching region controlled by guerrillas, both knew it was risky. The government, military, and police had all warned against it. When their vehicle was halted by a commando, Rojas’s life, one where freedom “was the most natural thing in the world,” was suddenly filled with endless marching, loneliness, and isolation. Worse, there was forced cohabitation with the other prisoners, self-imposed fasting, failed escape attempts, and perpetual darkness. Eventually, with both in states of severe depression, Rojas’s friendship with Betancourt ended. Even after Betancourt was released in July 2008, the women have had no contact. It’s one of the few details of her experience about which Rojas will not speak.
Another is the identity of the father of her six-year-old son, Emmanuel. There have been several theories on the father’s identity—namely a FARC member or fellow prisoner—but Clara steadfastly refuses to give the answer. The only one whom she will tell, she says, is her son. Born in a hut via a caesarean that put Rojas’s life at risk, Emmanuel, in need of treatment for Leishmaniasis, was taken by the FARC from Rojas after eight months. For three years she waited, but Emmanuel was never returned. After several investigations carried out by the Alvaro Uribe government, and just before Clara’s release, the boy was found in an orphanage. In her just-released book, Captive: 2,147 Days of Terror in the Colombian Jungle (translated by Adriana López), she explains that she writes, “so that it remains for my son and those of his generation…. I want to share my experiences with readers and have them understand the difficulties I suffered and overcame.” Today, mom and son live together in the outskirts of Bogotá.
We met in the garden of the ancient Hotel Manin in Milan, where Rojas came to present the Italian version of Captive, but also, perhaps, a new piece of the complicated puzzle of contemporary Colombian history. Slim with pale skin, Rojas wore a dark gray, tailored suit. Her composure and elegance belied a woman just two years removed from such horrors. She spoke with a surreal calm, though she glowed and burst into loud laughter when she spoke of Emmanuel.
—Laura Stefani for Guernica
Guernica: Tell me about seeing yourself in the hotel mirror, for the first time after your release.
Clara Rojas: It was one of the most stirring experiences of my life, and I’ve been living it over again every single day of the last year and a half. That is to say, since I was released. To recognize myself in that mirror was more rewarding than regaining my freedom.
Guernica: It’s impossible for any of us to understand what it’s like to lose our freedom. Can you try as best you can to explain it?
Clara Rojas: I used to work, to support myself, freedom to me was the most natural thing in the world. Then, one day, I lost everything, as if my life had been put back a century or so, to the age of slavery. One of the hardest moments was when they chained Ingrid and me to a tree. It happened after our second failed escape attempt; I felt deprived of everything.
Down there, time is an endless sequence of endless days.
Guernica: You don’t discuss your relationship with Ingrid Betancourt or what happened between you two. But can you speak about the tension that reigned among the prisoners?
Clara Rojas: In a dangerous, borderline situation like that, people lose control. You feel the pressure of being trapped for months in a big cage, without any possibility of getting out, not even for going to the lavatory. We were obliged to take turns even to go for a short walk and this triggered strong reactions over nothing, even over water rations.
You are deprived of a priceless possession: self-determination. I’m not talking just about freedom of movement, but also about simple daily life choices. To have coffee instead of tea, to decide what to have for lunch, what music to listen to.
Guernica: And the jungle. Tell me what it was like to live in there.
Clara Rojas: Life in the jungle is constantly plunged into darkness since the sunlight cannot penetrate through the thick vegetation. The real prison is the jungle itself where all the captives attempted to escape and were caught or decided, in spite of themselves, to return to their camp, like Ingrid and I did once. Down there, time is an endless sequence of endless days.
The guerrilla sentries have precise orders: in case of a raid, kill all prisoners. That’s why we always prayed that the military helicopters would go away.
Guernica: What was day-to-day life like?
Clara Rojas: Just imagine you’re walking in the street and suddenly you fall into a dark hole in which you spend a number of years. An indefinite time, wasted time, empty time, that kind of time you always missed in your previous life. So you try to use it as best as you can. I made myself a daily routine, after waking up I used to do some exercise. Then, I tidied up things and washed my clothes in order to survive in acceptable conditions. Sometimes I had the chance to read and write. Once I ran out of my copybooks and pens, I spent hours multiplying numbers in my mind, I went over and over the multiplication table. I had to train my memory and overcome fears.
Guernica: What was the worst fear?
Clara Rojas: Hearing the military helicopters coming close. Their raids are extremely dangerous; once the army finds a guerrilla camp, they start shooting. They always kill someone, and we wore the same camouflage suits as the guerrilla, therefore it was impossible to be identified as prisoners. Moreover, we could have been caught in cross fire. The guerrilla sentries have precise orders: in case of a raid, kill all prisoners. That’s why we always prayed that the military helicopters would go away.
The FARC have lost a clear political strategy, they have been living in the forest for so long, they have grown terribly isolated, they almost seem autistic, and this means they are totally alien to the Colombian society.
Guernica: The day you realized you were pregnant, you discovered a new strength in yourself. But you were also given reassurance by one of the commanders, which gave you more courage. What did he say?
Clara Rojas: “We won’t let you die, neither you nor the baby. Remember: this baby is yours, you’ll protect him baring your fangs, like a tiger.”
Guernica: You wrote that the birth of your son and the events of the following weeks, when you feared dying because of the complications that set in after surgery, shed a new light on the guerrillas. How so?
Clara Rojas: We never saw our chiefs. Our only contact was with the guards. They were young boys and girls, all illiterate, who usually brought us food. After my pregnancy, they started to worry about my health and my son’s as well. I was in such a terrible state that I couldn’t look after my baby, so a guerrilla woman did it in my place, after asking my permission. In the jungle women were also nurses; they did their best to help us recover. At that time, they were my only hope, so I decided to accept their help, even though my first impulse was to refuse it. Once I recovered and joined the other prisoners again, everything returned the way it used to be. After they took Emmanuel away, breaking the promise to return him to me in good health, I cracked up. The only thing that kept me alive was faith and my mother’s frequent messages that I heard on the radio programs dedicated to us, the prisoners.
Guernica: At the end of your book, you say that you’ve managed to forgive. How?
Clara Rojas: You have to look at the whole picture. This country has been in war for the last fifty years or more, and the conflict between the government and the guerrilla has grown harsher and harsher. My story had a happy ending, therefore all I want to do now is to promote reconciliation, since I believe that it is always possible for human beings to reach an agreement. By now everybody knows that there is no military solution, the FARC has about 15,000 armed members, spread over a very large area. Finding guerrillas in the jungle is like looking for a needle in a haystack. They are in many different camps and their displacements are carried out extremely fast. The only solution is to open a channel on both sides in order to encourage trusting relations. It’s important that some of them take the first step, not only by laying down their arms, but also by going back to ordinary life, observing the laws as we all do. The government has launched a Readjustment Program, conceived for those who leave the guerrilla voluntarily, and 13,000 fighters have already taken advantage of it. It’s not a big thing, but it’s a good start. In my opinion the FARC have lost a clear political strategy, they have been living in the forest for so long, they have grown terribly isolated, they almost seem autistic, and this means they are totally alien to Colombian society. How can you connect their kidnappings with any particular claim by the population? There is no real connection between the two and no one has suggestions for solving the problem.
Guernica: Do you think the FARC are aware of this?
Clara Rojas: The killing of Raul Reyes, number two in the organization and the official spokesman, in March 2008 was a great blow to them. Shortly after that, the Colombian army freed 15 hostages in a blitz, an objective they had for years. The FARC were forced to reconsider their battle and Alfonso Cano, the new leader, is probably working out a new strategy. To tell you the truth, they have been releasing several hostages lately, such as Pablo Moncayo, the man who was held captive for 12 years, without submitting any claims. This is a good sign, it means that something is changing.
Guernica: Before we say goodbye, you wanted to add a few words about Emmanuel.
Clara Rojas: We were in Cartagena for a short holiday. He asked me, “Why don’t we fly a kite over the beach?” To raise my eyes to the sky, to feel the sun on my face, the wind blowing, to have my son on my side, it’s all so wonderful and natural. Emmanuel is my motorcito.
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Photo by Nils Vanderbolt.