I was kidnapped by a Colombian guerrilla group and spent 6 months captive deep within the Andean forests.
It was in the 90s, at the peak of Colombia’s modern violence period when illegal armed forces shared the country and ties with a booming drug dealing industry, both highly financed in part by a widespread kidnap practice. The effect was so generalized, that likely most anyone in Colombia today can relate with a personal story, a family member or a close friend that was in some way or another touched directly by the violence during this period.
It was a cool December day when my family was traveling by car from Bogotá city to our home town in the northern part of the country, some 12 hours away. It was past Christmas and in Colombia, this meant Carnival season: we were set to spend the remainder of the holiday, New Years and the subsequent weeks with the rest of our family and friends, celebrating on one of the multiple regional festivals that spawn all over the country during the first weeks of the year. I was 14-years-old.
Somewhere halfway, there was a roadblock into what seemed to be a military control point, only it was not military at all: several armed men, in full camouflage, patrolled in broad daylight stopping cars and questioning the occupants. Luck had it that it was me who was sitting on the left side of the vehicle, behind the driver’s seat. So when after a few seemingly routine questions we were all asked to step out, it was me who followed my father to the left, towards the open landscape. Conversely, my mom and brother stepped out to the right, against a hard rock mountain wall. After a couple more trivial questions, the man, being at the driver’s side of the car pointed towards my father and me and said, quite blandly and matter-of-fact-like: “Ok so, the two of you are now kidnapped.”
These few words, spoken so lightly, took a while to really sink in. I remember looking up at my father, not quite sure what he’d make of such blunt news. After a couple of uneasy seconds, my father said firmly and calmly, “Ok. We’ll go.” Given the few instants the whole ordeal took, the weight of what was going on didn’t really hit me at the moment. Rather than an abrupt crash, the process was more like a slow motion blur. Without really saying goodbye to mom and brother, we obeyed the silent indications of the armed men to get off the road and step into the trees. Walking those few meters, we both looked back, me in confusion, my dad sending strong visual cues of strength and support to my mother. She screamed, the voice lingering on the air until only a few paces in when the thick Colombian flora swallowed us whole.
We walked a few hundred meters into the forest and met a larger group of armed men. Leaders from both parties exchanged some whispers and then we resumed the walking. From there, we walked in silence for hours. This time to ourselves was when everything began to take shape for me. Walking in silence allowed my mind to offer thousands of explanations of what could possibly be going on, only to eventually settle on the least creative and most obvious realization of the truth. I only managed to get through that day by having my father walking beside me, calm and stern as ever regardless of the doubtless turmoils he was fighting in his own mind.
We only stopped when we came out of the woods to meet a highway. We waited under cover until it was fully dark, in order to cross and resume our walking, which continued long into the early morning hours. When we arrived at a farmer’s house, we were offered shelter. Farmers in these regions, some more than others, were used to having armed traffic come through and allowed passing while seemingly looking the other way. No one said much — there was always an uneasy silence hanging over the group, which the farmer couple instantly adopted. The next day we were offered a surprisingly large breakfast, surprising only by the circumstances but not really by the context of where we were. After a coffee resupply, we moved on and got back to walking.
This routine kept for a couple of days. We walked, stopped at some house, farm or ranch, and seldom spoke, and walked again. My father and I spent New Years Eve holding hands in silence, lying on the floor and holding back our tears trying to keep our eyes closed and faces straight.
By January 3rd, my father managed to hold some conversations with our captors, convincing them that my mother would need help sorting everything out. Being captured, he argued, he was unable to facilitate any negotiation. Eventually they agreed to release him, in order to work something out to get me back. I keep today, and cherish fiercely, the memory of my father holding me at arms length, hands on my shoulders. We were nearly the same height, but that day he towered over me. Calm and stern as ever, if only in his demeanor, he looked straight into my eyes and said, “I will come back for you.”
If today I write these lines it is only because that statement was true. It wasn’t even a promise. I don’t think that the words were even meant for me, but rather for himself. He was vocalizing his plan, acknowledging that it was a hard fact. That was all I needed to know. He turned and walked briskly into the foliage. I followed his back until he was gone.
What happened next could fill books, and this has run long as is. I was eventually released around mid-June, and for those months I traveled through a spiral of self-discovery that has strongly, but not solely, molded whom I’ve become. A few thoughts that overarch the whole experience:
- There were lots of walking involved. We seldom stayed at the same place for more than one or two nights. I think the longest we stayed put, during all those months, was five nights. Walking was big part of our routine, and one that I appreciated greatly. Nevermind that I was always among a group of armed men — while walking, it was just me, my mind, and nature crunching under my boots. I enjoyed being left to my thoughts (I still do). I learned that the mind can be a man’s best friend – or worst enemy. Besides, Colombia’s landscape, forests and rivers, are breathtaking. I cannot relate with, only feel terribly compassionate for, all those people who have been held kidnapped in closed quarters, dark spaces. The agony of such circumstances, on top of everything else that these situations imply, is mind-blowing.
- I slept on a hammock, and became very adept at quickly setting it up and bringing it down. We usually slept under the stars, so I also found peace gazing into the night sky and trying to hone my astronomy basics. This wasn’t always possible because it rained a lot, so we set up plastic canvases to refuge under. One of my all-time most miserable nights was below a thunderous rainstorm that lasted through the night, shredding whatever we tried to use as shelter. It made me empathetic towards so many people that have nowhere to go when it rains.
- I was not alone. A few weeks in, our group fused with another that held someone else. It took a while but eventually they let us connect and our mutual presence gave each other strength. The other man was very depressed, he was older than me and starting a family, newlywed with a baby on the way. It was a devastating time to find himself in this situation. I eventually managed to make him laugh, we called ourselves “roommates,” and we became our own little support system.
- Our only link to the outside world was a little Sony radio that had this cool retractable wire antenna that could extend for some 4 meters. We hung the antenna on tree branches and managed to hear only two stations, a rock radio station and the audio of a national TV channel, of all things. Through this device, we kept on top of news. I remember hearing about Clinton’s first inauguration, the rise of Escobar-hunting illegal cartels, and the successes of one of Colombia’s rising football stars in the Italian league. I owed my sanity to that little radio, and the rock station especially since it was full of these trivial shows and contests that reminded me of the lightness of everyday life. I wrote the station thanking them for their company once I got out (remember, it was the only station we got). They never responded.
- We got supplies from market runs they did around once a month. Someone would leave early and we then rendezvoused in the afternoon at a set place, different from where we separated. They would go into some town and get soap, shampoo, cooking ingredients, batteries, etc. They sometimes allowed us to request small things if they could be easily obtainable. I got some pens and notebooks, a toy chess set, and whatever books they could come across. I read around 8 books total, but nothing too interesting, given the format of having one of these men grab whatever he found on some small town grocery. I remember a couple from Wayne Dyer (not amused), and Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation.
- I had my 15th birthday sometime within this period. I celebrated bashfully with my “roommate” by regarding a giant soursop, or guanabana fruit, as close a cake as we would get. These are normally melon-sized, so when we found one like a large watermelon, we thought it appropriate for celebrating. We found victories in little things like that all the time. As a present, he gave me an unopened piece of white underwear briefs, just arrived from the last supply run. I kid you not when I state just how precious new underwear was, so it was a big deal of a gift. The magic did not last however, since the very next day while I wore them for the first time, our group became alerted of some military presence nearby, and we were made to walk extra this day, going non-stop for hours. Without giving too much detail, suffice to say that by the time I was able to stop I found that I had blemished my brand new pair, beyond any washing capacity available to me in the forest, against the snowy white fabric. This was one of the few moments I cursed my luck and cave to the despair of my situation.
- Speaking of birthdays, I missed my brother’s. I missed the birthdays of my two young cousins, pretty much sisters to me, who were told some lie to keep them from worrying about me. I missed Mother’s Day. I missed lots of uneventful days, idle time with family and friends that I’ll never get back. I missed school. One of the most dreadful aspects of kidnapping is that you never know when it will be over. My optimistic brain always thought it was on the verge of ending. Our minds are cabled that way. I remember thinking, during the first weeks, that my classmates would never believe my story once I went back to school after the holiday period was over. It never even crossed my mind that I would miss start of classes by end of January. When I eventually made it back to school, it was August. This delusion of always expecting a near outcome, also helped me greatly. If I had been told from the start this would take months, I would not have survived as easily. Remembering this also helps me keep things in perspective. Just as I can’t relate with people who experienced closed isolation, I cannot start to fathom what is must be like for all those who have lasted decades in captivity. In Colombia, today still, hundreds of cops and military personnel remain kidnapped, taken since those days decades ago. They’ve seen their years come and go, away from their families, separated from their kids who are now grown men and women and only remember them through faint images. Time is the most precious resource, and as ever forward-moving beings, we can never get it back. To have it taken away, and in such cruel, violent manner, even for a minute, is a nefarious atrocity.
- I mentioned we had to move hastily and longer than usual, when we brushed with military forces. It wasn’t often, around once a month. It was scary, though, because for all-practical purposes, my roommate and I were just two more of them. We all walked together in a closed pocket, dressed alike. The only difference for someone looking close enough, was that the two of us were unarmed. I am sure we didn’t even look uneasy after a while during our regular walks. So when we had to shuffle, we always feared to be mistaken for an illegal group as a whole and being engaged with accordingly. Once it came close: I was bathing on a small pond, when all of the sudden we heard a helicopter come out of nowhere. Our group scattered frantically to get cover under some big rocks, and within seconds the aircraft was easily seen above us. They circled, hovered as in scanning of the area, and fired a small burst of shots. Hearing the bullets piercing the water surface and seeing the fine ripples on the water, made me tremble. If seen, there was no way for any soldier to know I was not one of them, so I was forced just as much as anyone else to remain concealed. When nothing moved after the shots, the helicopter flew off. We gathered our stuff quickly, picked up camp and left.
- On that note, I’ll add that these guys were good. If you visited our campsites five minutes after we were gone, you would never have imagined any human had been there. Clearly, decades of wilderness life had left their toll on these people. The first Colombian guerrillas were formed and took to the mountains around the 60s.
- Speaking of these people and the toll taken by their decisions, it was sad realizing that for many of them, this was the only life they knew. I got to know around 20 or 30 people, in changing groups across the six months. Most all of them joined early on, as children, mostly recruited out of pressure. The usual tactic back then was getting close to farmer families and helping them with some issue. Usually it involved payback vendettas for violent acts against the family, like the killing of some brother or father. Who knows what was actually true, but it all concluded with the guerrillas convincing young boys that they’d help avenge their fathers, and in exchange they should join, and help avenge the next guy. After a while, the boys found them amidst criminal activities from which they could not get away. Young minds are easily molded. Today guerrillas in Colombia have lost their character as social or political movements, focused only in profiting enough to keep their wheels turning. Yet, however all the drug and kidnapping money is going, lower levels of the organization never see it. Communication between groups is fragmented, and resources scarce. So these people spent their lives in utmost austerity, fighting for the wrong causes, believing all the crap that’s been fed to them since they were kids taken from home. In more ways than one, they were just as prisoners as we were: they couldn’t go anywhere, they couldn’t leave us, they couldn’t make their own choices. Always following some third hand instructions, always subject to the whims of some unknown faces, always prisoners of their own circumstances. This is not escaping them from their criminal acts and responsibilities, but at least during all this time, in my mind I had a different view of the world to go back to; for many of them, smart, hardworking people like any of us, would-be contributing members of society should they have opted for other choices, this was all the world they knew.
- The person kidnapped takes the least amount of suffering. The most awful quality of this crime, is uncertainty. Not knowing the when, the how, the where, can drive someone mad. As the protagonist, you know a lot of things. You know you are alive. You know you are well, you are fed, you are moving. Your only responsibility is to stay calm, be patient, keep it together. Don’t do anything stupid. Live one day into the next. Families, they get the worst part. They feel the responsibility, the urge, to take action. Do something. The outcome is in their hands. Plus, they know nothing, beyond whatever the captors decide to share. I spoke with my family twice during the whole period, through a two-way radio. Then once I answered some questions, in written, for survival proof. Other than that, blank. Thinking on how my mother would be worrying was a tough shadow that followed me everywhere. Besides, these people were decent to me, as far as interaction goes. No need to be overly rude or aggressive if we are supposed to coexist, if not happily. They understood this and opted for keeping us calm. They were professionals after all. But in their interaction with my family, for the very same reasons, they were hostile, aggressive, threatening. It was part of their communication tactic to get their way. So, the people outside have the worst part.
Nearly six months into this ordeal, we were released. We were given rough directions on how to reach the highway. We walked away warily, nervous, but with every step our confidence grew. A few minutes in we were running, laughing. The plan was to reach the highway and get a lift into whichever next town. There was no one supposed to meet us, or expect us. You would think we would rush out of the forest as fast as our feet could take us, but it was not quite so. Again, not an abrupt crash but a slow motion blur. We savored every step of the way out. We reached a nice pond, and stopped to bathe, to refresh. We took our time, changed our clothes, and moved on without any pending haste. I had grown fond of the forest, of my hammock, of the stars. Not that I didn’t want to leave, but it was a process, one that warranted its due respect.
We eventually found the road and after a short while, a car found us that had apparently been looking for us. Even though we were told otherwise, our families were in fact told to expect us and instructed to send a car. We arrived into town by nightfall, where we finally met our families on a park. I have to pause a little every time I recall of that moment, when I saw my father and jumped on him. It took him a few seconds to realize who I was and was was going on. He fulfilled his task — he got me out. My mother and brother were also there, and it is just as indescribable to portray what it was like. I’ll just leave it by saying that the other people at the park never guessed why so much commotion.
Were there life-changing consequences? Sure. It was a wild ride that marked me, but not in bad ways, not entirely. I never lost trust in people, or in traveling by car. It was, however, a lot of years before I was able to go back on that route and visit our hometown again. We followed up for a while, but I lost touch with my roommate eventually. I like to think this was positive: by confining his memory to this episode alone, I really appreciate the role he played in my life. No sense in pretending we would become life-long buddies. We each urged to get on with our lives. We looked at each other, smiled silently as accomplices, and went our ways.
I appreciate time. I appreciate nature. I appreciate the never-ending company of my mind. I sometimes long for hammocks under starry nights. Then I remember the downpours, and I appreciate where I’ve come. I appreciate family: having people care for you, someone to come home to. I love my country, don’t hold anything against it. Sometimes bad people get the upper hand, and sometimes they don’t. It is different now. Colombia has regained much of its sovereignty, yet it is still ironing out some issues. I despise crime, I despise hurtful actions. I am politically harsh in my views as to how this conflict has evolved and how it affects everyone. I value freedom as the most underrated gift, which has to be fought for ferociously!