Santiago Fourcade with Mark Walsh / Chronicle Foreign Service – 2008-12-31 13:21:09
BOGOTA, Colombia (December 19, 2008) — In a nondescript hotel lobby, Clara Rojas stares into the distance before speaking in a hesitant voice.
The former vice presidential candidate, who spent nearly six years held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its acronym FARC, settles into a sofa seat, and sets the ground rules for an interview. No questions are off limits except those regarding her former running mate, Ingrid Betancourt, the French Colombian politician.
The Colombian media has reported that Rojas has criticized Betancourt for making “a big circus” over their captivity. There are also reports that a rift ensued between the two women during their imprisonment.
“The media tends to forget about the real problems and focuses on the superficiality of it all,” Rojas said. “Now the media is spreading rumors about fights that we had, but really nobody can judge us over those moments. How can you criticize companions for having little patience after six years of imprisonment?
“I took a decision that led me to be kidnapped and there’s no point crying about it. I was held captive for six years because I went along with a friend at a moment when I thought I could change the world. Would I do it again? Never.”
They were mostly “quiet days, when you would wake up at 5 a.m., listen to the radio that broadcast messages of support from relatives and hope somebody would offer you a mug of hot coffee. Then you would work out how to make the hours pass and each person would have different routines for killing time.”
For the most part, Rojas lived in a camp with 26 other hostages, which included Betancourt. The worst days occurred when the FARC forced them to march.
“The march could last 10 hours with a 30-kilo (66 pound) pack on your back. It’s incredibly hard and exhausting. Many times fatigue becomes a desolation that is hard to control and desperation gets the better of you. It was crucial to stay motivated so you didn’t lose your mind. The jungle pardons nothing and the monotony of the place wears you down.”
A Son Is Born
Her son, Emmanuel, was delivered in a jungle camp by Cesarean section. Before using a carving knife, a rebel with no medical training gave her an anesthetic. The baby’s arm was fractured during birth.
The identity of her son’s father is a secret that she guards closely. Rojas has made no claim of rape, suggesting a brief liaison. FARC commanders have confirmed that Rojas had a relationship with one of her captors, who was probably executed as a result of the relationship.
Rojas is also coy about whether Emmanuel, now 4, will be told the facts about his father.
“The initial indications suggest he is dead, and if I start to tell that to my boy it would be too confusing for him. I want to continue being the only one responsible for my son; that’s the reality and I don’t expect anything else. For me, it’s a closed chapter.”
After Emmanuel’s birth in 2004, Rojas received little support from the guerrillas aside from carving a few toys and helping her sew clothes from scraps.
“I tried to keep some kind of basic hygiene by washing clothes daily and bathing the baby whenever I could. There were no diapers, of course, so I used an old sheet cut into sections. The whole situation was a disaster.
“They are such extreme moments that you have to rely completely on all the mental strength you can summon. Emmanuel was my world and my imprisonment revolved around him.”
Rojas’ time with Emmanuel, however, was short-lived.
When he was 8 months old, the FARC high command decided to separate mother and child for security reasons. It was a decision that hit Rojas very hard.
“It was the most difficult moment I endured. I got no further news about him and I spent the whole time that I was kidnapped thinking about whether I would ever see him again.”
The separation lasted more than 2 1/2 years. In December 2007, almost six years after she was taken hostage, FARC told Rojas that she and her son would be freed as part of talks brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Soon afterward, however, and much to the surprise of everyone involved, Colombian officials confirmed that a boy matching Emmanuel’s description had been found in the central city of Villavicencio and was being cared for at a state welfare home in Bogota. He had been given to a farmer and left at a hospital under a false name. DNA tests confirmed that he was Rojas’ son.
The revelation was a major public relations fiasco for FARC, which had placed the boy with a peasant family and had been unable to find him. A month later, Rojas was released.
Freedom at Last
In contrast to the dramatic military mission that freed Betancourt and three US contractors six months later, Rojas’ release in January was a low-key affair. On Jan. 10, FARC allowed Red Cross to land military helicopters at a secret location to pick up Rojas and former Congresswoman Consuelo Gonzales.
“It was 6 in the afternoon and we were listening to the radio just before being told to go to sleep. At that moment, the news report said FARC had released an official statement and obviously we all crowded round the set with tremendous hope. They repeated the message and we heard that I was going to be released. I was so happy that I couldn’t move from my bed.
“When I heard the news, I stayed composed because it was something that I had worried about and waited for so anxiously through the long years that I was separated from my son.”
Three days later, Rojas was reunited with Emmanuel at a foster center in Bogota.
“They took him away from me when he was age 8 months old and I had to wait almost three years to hold him in my arms again as a free woman. Making up for lost time is a fantastic thing, because every day we get to know each other anew and enjoy the experiences of being a mother and son together.
“Now when I see him in school, smiling and enjoying the company of his friends, I feel all the years of effort and suffering without him were worthwhile.
“Today my only wish is that my son will be able to live in peace.”
Rojas believes forgiveness is the only solution of Colombia’s long-standing civil war.
“It is crucial to look for a route toward reconciliation with the armed factions, and that’s why I’ve thought a lot about forgiveness. It’s an attitude that has to come from the heart, and perhaps it’s the only way to achieve peace in a country that is desperate for reconciliation.”
Rojas says the experience has made her appreciate her freedom.
“I came to understand how important life is and how we must cherish it. And freedom is an integral part of that, like an ingredient that you only miss when it’s not there for the first time.
“Because I suffered and am now free, I realize that life has greater meaning when you walk unchained.”
In 2002, Clara Rojas was abducted by leftist rebels in secret jungle camps. Held hostage for almost six years, she became pregnant by one of her captors only to see her son taken away.
Now, in an exclusive interview with The Chronicle, the woman who once ran for vice president talks about her time in captivity, the birth of her child and the possibility of forgiving her captors, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by the acronym FARC.
On Feb. 23, 2002, Rojas, then 37, and running mate, Ingrid Betancourt were abducted while campaigning in San Vicente del Caguan, a then-demilitarized zone in the south. The kidnapping turned the women into two of the world’s most famous political hostages.
Rojas made international headlines after an imprisoned policeman escaped from a FARC camp. He later told the media that Rojas had given birth to a son, Emmanuel, in captivity in 2004 and that FARC had separated the two soon after his birth. The revelation provoked national outrage, and sparked the launching of “Operation Emmanuel” to seek their release that included Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
In January, Rojas was finally released by FARC. Betancourt, a French-Colombian politician, three Americans and a group of other hostages were later rescued in a dramatic military operation in July.
Today, Rojas divides her time between caring for her son and writing a book about her experience in the jungle.
At least 20 politicians, police officers and soldiers, some of whom have been held for more than a decade, remain in FARC hands along with hundreds of other prisoners.
– Santiago Fourcade with Mark Walsh
E-mail Santiago Fourcade and Mark Walsh at
© 2008 Hearst Communications Inc.
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