At the turn of the 21st century, over 3000 people were being kidnapped every year in Colombia…that’s an average of 8 people a day. The South American nation accounted for half of the world’s abductions. 60% of the kidnappings were carried out by Colombia’s rebel groups; the country’s right-wing paramilitaries were responsible for another 10%, and the rest were criminal in nature. Two men describe what it was like to be abducted and to live for years, cut off from their families.
Original broadcast: August, 6, 2003
Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Stolen Time: Kidnapping in Colombia”. The programme is produced by Eric Beauchemin.
Here in Colombia, they kidnap people one, two, three, four times. If you pay one time, you are not sure if you have to pay two or three more times.
Over 3000 people are kidnapped every year in Colombia…that’s an average of 8 people a day. Half of the world’s abductions take place in the South American nation. 60% of the kidnappings are carried out by Colombia’s rebel groups; the country’s right-wing paramilitaries are responsible for another 10%, and the rest are criminal in nature. Most kidnappings are aimed at financing the rebels’ 4-decade-old war against the Colombian state. It’s estimated that in the 1990s, kidnapping netted the country’s guerrillas over 1½ billion dollars. Foreigners are a prime target: I myself was held briefly. Two men jumped into my taxi and took me on a so-called paseo millonario, whereby the thieves get the PIN code to your credit card or bank card and then drive from one cash dispenser to another, often for days, until they empty your bank account. My assailants hit me and repeatedly threatened to kill me. But I got off relatively lightly. Since I didn’t know the PIN code, they took everything I had and dumped me on the side of the road after only an hour. Most kidnap victims though are held for months or even years.
My name is Fernando Trebilcock. I’m a Colombian lawyer. Three years ago in a road near of Bogotá…I was making a trip to Villavicencio. EB: How far away is that from Bogotá? 60 miles. Romania, one of the biggest kidnappers in the world, took me. Here in Colombia we call it “pesca milagrosa”, miraculous fishing. When the people go to another town or another city, the guerrillas took the people.EB: They set up a roadblock. Yes. They said to me that I have to pay or they will kill me. It’s the same to everybody: or you pay, or you and your family could be dead. Romania, the commander of the fronts from the FARC, the biggest guerrillas here in Colombia, he sent me to la Zona del Despeje. It’s a 42-thousand kilometres of free territory, no military. EB: Under rebel control, that area. Yes. With me, there was 32 persons, 2 kids, 3 old mans, 80 years old, women, and all kinds of persons.
Oscar Ortiz, an engineer, was also kidnapped by the FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. In August 1998, he and his colleague Heriberto were stopped as they were returning from a job outside the capital. Nine armed men forced them to get out of their car and took them deep into the mountains. They were held there for 10 months.
The first three weeks were really hard for us, especially the first few days after we were kidnapped. They tortured us psychologically. They threatened to shoot us and kill our families. They said if our families didn’t pay, they would cut us up into pieces, and they would kidnap one of our family members or someone from our company. Come what may, they were going to get their money. This psychological torture, especially when you’ve just been kidnapped, leaves you feeling defenceless, utterly hopeless. We didn’t say anything except that we were very poor, and we didn’t understand why they had taken us. We were just doing our job. But they kept saying that our company would have to pay or they would kill us.
EB: What were the conditions like in the camp? Very poor. The name in Spanish is cambucha for this little house, like a little tent, with plastic sheeting. Yes. It’s not a good place. Bad food, with handcuffs and tied to a tree. It’s not a good hotel. EB: Were you handcuffed all the time? One month, one month and 15 days. EB: But were you handcuffed 24 hours a day? Yes. It depends of the commander of the group. Some commanders give to you a good treatment. Others very bad treatment. It’s good or bad luck. EB: Did they give you anything when you arrived there, I don’t know like soap or a toothbrush or something like that? No. They give you to one toothbrush, a pair of boots, and no more. It’s not a good service, hotel service [laugh].
They put straw and plastic sheeting on top of it. They gave us a blanket. We slept with our clothes on because we were up in the mountains, at over 3-thousand metres. The cold was intense. The food was OK, but because we were so high up in the mountains, so there wasn’t much food available, and as a result we suffered a lot.
I stay with 32 persons, different persons in six camps, in these mini-concentration camps for 12-15 kidnapped people with 15-20 guerrillas. EB: So you weren’t with the same people all the time? No. No. No. No. It changed all the time. Every month they moved you to another place with another people, with another commander. EB: Were you able to talk with the guerrillas? [sigh] Sometimes. It depends of the commander. If the commander is an open-mind person, you can do that. The last commander said everybody in silence. Everybody with his handcuffs. No sun, no nothing. You have to stay in your tent, in your cambuche.
My name is Soraida Mohamed. I work as part of the team of las Voces del Secuestro that could be translated the Voice of Kidnapped People. We started in 1994 when the director, Herben Hollos, he was kidnapped for about 2 weeks. He was taken from the studios of Caracol, that is the radio station where we broadcast the programme. He was taken during two weeks. Then he was released by the Colombian army. He noticed how lonely were the people kidnapped in the mountains. So he began the programme, sending messages for the people who were there. They began with 10 minutes. Now the programme takes four hours and a half.
We started listening every Sunday to hear the messages our family sent. It gave us a lot of strength. Sometimes their messages weren’t broadcast because so many people had called or written in. When there was no message for us, we were sad, but we knew that it was simply because there were too many messages. And the next Sunday, there would be one for us. We never slept those nights. At midnight, we would get together and listen to the radio until 4 o’clock in the morning and then we would talk among ourselves until sunrise.
EB: Why do the guerrillas allow the hostages to listen to this programme? Well, we here from one of the commandants of the guerrilla, they said people were going to commit suicide because they feel absolutely lonely. Imagine yourself in a mountain without knowing anything about the world. So you think that you are forgotten by everyone. And when you listen to a message and someone says, hey daddy, yesterday my tooth fall. And listen, we are painting the house with the colour you like or yesterday we were laughing about the movie you made, things like that, so they keep them alive. So guerrillas understand now that letting them listen to the messages is a way to keep a hostage alive. They eat, they walk because they know that someone is waiting for them outside.
EB: When you talked to the guerrillas, what did you talk to them about? One time I talked with them about the world. They said that the world is a disk, a plane disk. It was a three days discussion about if the world is round or flat, yes. Something like that. It’s people analphabet illiterate illiterate, right, with no culture. It’s very, very difficult to speak with them. EB: Did you talk them why they were holding you? No. No. No because it’s very clear that they don’t know what are they doing. Are kids, 15, 16 year old kids, farmers. They don’t know nothing about politics or why they are catch you. They feel shame.EB: Why do you say that? Because my nickname was Doc. Hey Doc. ‘Hey Doc, it’s not good to see you in silence. We want to speak with you but we can’t do that. It’s not good to see you with handcuffs and with a rope. It’s not a good thing but sorry, but we have to do this.’
We often thought of escaping. We even made plans several times. We were sure that we could make it because we were engineers. We work in countryside, in the mountains. We know how to find our bearings. We know how to protect ourselves from hunger, the rain and the cold. What always stopped us were our fellow hostages. We knew that if we escaped or even tried to escape, they would kill one of them.
One of my friends, Rolf Hernando Ramírez, he was killed by the guerrilla. The guerrilla killed him because they believe that his family won’t pay. He know that the guerrilla wants to kill him and he tried to escape.
One guerrilla, his name is Jorge, told to us that Rolf Hernando was killed, that he with other two killed Rolfe. Later the commander have in his hand the wedding ring of Rolfe, and later another guerrilla woman told to us with details, all this crime.
We started asking them to please let us walk a bit, not be holed up all the time in those small caves, to get a bit of exercise. There was a small river near the first place we were held. We asked them to take us to the stream and to let us fish, to pass the time. Gradually, the guerrilla commander began to agree to our requests. He ordered hooks for us, and we made some fishing poles. We caught trout and shared it with our fellow hostages.
I have a strong belief about my freedom because my partners here in my office, they was kidnapped too and I was the negotiator and I’m sure that they are working for me. I know that my friends get me out. EB: How many other partners were kidnapped? Two. EB: And how many partners do you have in total? We are three. [laugh]. Everybody go to the hotel. [laugh] The first one in 1990, with the ELN. The guerrilla took him. At that time, we have to go and talk with the commanders in a very far places. My friend, he was 10 months. I have to speak too much with everybody, but OK, I get him free. In 1998, with my second partner, the FARC. My friend, the guerrilla get him 4 months. I have to go many times to the mountains and I have to speak with a lot of people. EB: Why a lot of people? Why didn’t you just speak to the commander? Because sometimes they say hey now you have to speak with this person. Our negotiator. OK, a new one, a new one. And sometimes, it was a kind man and sometimes an angry man. It’s a tactic. When they think they have to test you, they change the rules. They said, hey, nothing of the things that we are talked with you is true. Let’s begin again. OK. And then we have to start again. All the negotiations are just about money. I mean that’s the bottom line, money. Money, all the time it’s money. For these people, it’s money. If you want to get free, you have to pay. It’s simple.
The guerrillas would say to someone ‘get ready, you are going home. We’ve concluded a deal.’ The person would leave the same day. It always came out of the blue. It was really difficult because we would be playing cards or talking, and then the commander would come and say ‘get ready, you’re leaving’.
EB: What did you think when people were leaving and you had to remain behind? Oh. Two feelings: a great happiness and envy, very deep envy. All the people feel the same way. I asked to my friends, hey you feel the same sorry, but I feel envy when you leave and they say hey, sure, the same to me, and a great happiness. But that’s the two feelings.
The day they freed us, Heriberto and I had spent 15 days together on our own. We were in a cave and couldn’t move. They told us they were going to free us in two days. The two days passed, then the third, the fourth. We started thinking that they were going to send us back to the mountains and keep us indefinitely. We were afraid they were going to force us to join them. They had been talking about that a lot: our training and knowledge made us useful to them.
Since there were only the two of us, we decided that if they forced us to join them, we would try to escape. If we died, that was a risk we were willing to take. But thank God, it didn’t happen. A commander came and told us “go”. It was one o’clock in the afternoon on the 31st of May 1999.
They said ‘hey, Doc, you are going to be free’. ‘I said OK.’ They are good liars. They told me that 6 or 7 times. I don’t believe too much. I walk three days from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. with no food. Only water and a little of panela. It’s a block of black sugar.
He repeated, ‘go! Go down this mountain. You’ll reach a road. And then keep walking till you reach Bogotá.’ The commander called Bogotá and told my brother, ‘I’ve released them…in case you want to come and pick them up’.
EB: What were you thinking during that time, when you were walking during those three days? That they are going to put me a bullet in my head. I don’t believe nothing. I’m not very sure that I was going to be free. My biggest fear was that that they wants to kill me. EB: Why? Because they killed a lot of persons. And I heard a lot of details about these crimes.
I was scared. We were walking very quickly and we didn’t look back. We saw a car full of guerrillas, and I was terrified. I thought they were coming back for us, that they had changed their minds. The car stopped. The guerrillas got out and told us to get in. I told Heriberto, ‘you see’. He didn’t say anything, but he was also convinced that they were going to take us back. But they had something else in mind: they wanted to invite us to have a drink in a nearby village.
They left and we kept on walking. The entire time we were afraid that they would come back for us. We had been walking from one in the afternoon till seven. We were thirsty, hungry and cold when we reached the main road. We were getting ready to spend the night on the side of the road when Heriberto saw the headlights of a car. I didn’t have my glasses on, so Heriberto told me what the car look like. There are two people inside. I told him they were my brother and my brother-in-law.
We had beards. Our hair was very long and dirty. We looked like homeless people. When my brother and my brother-in-law saw me, they didn’t recognise me. I ran out onto the road and started waving my hands. They almost ran me over because the guerrillas had told them not to stop for anyone. Their car wound up in a ditch. My brother-in-law yelled out of the window ‘Oscar!’ I told him, ‘yes, it’s me’. They got and all of us hugged each other. We were so happy. We cried and so did they. We hadn’t seen each other for 10 months.
At 1 a.m., I go to my house. It is the first time that my wife is very happy when I get at 1 a.m. [laugh]. There was my kids, my friends, my partners. It’s very strange because you don’t know if you have to, to smile, to cry, to speak, to shout. It’s very strange. It’s a turbulent feeling. You don’t believe that it’s true. With my friends, I talk about this moment and all they told me that it’s very similar. They don’t believe nothing.EB: And what was the reaction of your family? Something like that. They don’t believe it. They give you big hugs. They touch you. They cry. They look you too much. You can’t describe this feeling with only one world. It’s a lot of words. It’s like a Rubicon cube of emotions. But at that point you feel that the guerrilla touch you very deep and they touch you in not a good way, and they touch your kids, your family, your friends, your country, and you feel that the guerrilla have make a big scar in his souls and that will not change ever.
Every year, we have here in Bogotá a party. We call it the Despeje Party. We go to a place and there is something like 100 persons, all of us kidnapped people, and we make a party. We are good friends. EB: How long did you stay there? 4 months. Here in Colombia that’s a short time for a kidnapped.
I’ve changed quite a bit. I’m more cautious. I’m more fearful. I’m more suspicious. I don’t want to leave my house. If I’m invited to a party or I go out, I worry about my safety. I attach more importance to every single minute of my life, to every tiny thing. I’m less difficult. During those 10 months, I learned to appreciate many things that I used to take for granted.
EB: Are you afraid of being kidnapped again? Yeah, of course. Here in Colombia, they kidnap people one, two, three, four times. Yeah. That’s a risk, a real risk here in Colombia. If you pay one time, you are not sure if you have to pay two or three time, more times. EB: Do you live in fear? Yes, of course [chuckle]. Yes. Fear. But life as I told you is only one and you have to live and you have to live with happiness, not with fear.
Until we will die, we will have a psychological trauma that the guerrillas and the kidnapping left us. When we’re outside, we’re always afraid that there is someone out there spying on us because that’s how they were able to get us the first time. I’m already thinking about what will happen when I finish this interview. I have many nightmares. I dream about what happened, when I was there in the mountains, what would happen if I were kidnapped again and if they kidnapped my family or my co-workers.
These are crimes against the humanity. This is a war crime, and we will work to denounce this in The Hague, at the International Penal Court. These people have to pay. If you want peace here in Colombia, we have to make our first step in justice. If you don’t do this, we never have peace. And some Colombians are working hard for this goal that the world know this reality, the dimension of this tragedy, the dimension of this pain, and do something with the leaders of these groups.
“Stolen Time” was produced by Eric Beauchemin. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.