In Colombia, after captivity, a long road back

After nearly a decade of being held by FARC fighters in some of the most remote parts of Colombia, newly freed hostages must set out to face the challenges of restarting their lives.

After more than a decade in captivity, 10 men straggled off a helicopter shortly after the engines shutdown and the rotor blades came to a slow halt.

It was Monday in Villavicencio, Colombia, dusk was setting in, and the men were exhausted physically and drained emotionally.

However, they were lifted knowing they finally had been freed from the FARC guerillas after more than a decade being held in some of the most remote parts of the Colombian jungle.

(Video: Day they were released)

But there is no guarantee of a happy ending to this non-fiction saga.

They all have loving families anxious for their arrival home, but also awaiting them are real challenges in adapting to normal society.

Just ask Luis Eladio Pérez.

“Six years, eight months, 17 days, and nine hours.”

That is Pérez response when anyone asks him how long he spent held hostage by the FARC.

As a Colombian senator at the time of his kidnapping in 2001, he was told some guerilla leadership wanted to meet him in a remote area to talk peace. It was a set-up. They kidnapped him, in hopes of exchanging him for guerillas held prisoner by the government.

Every single day of his captivity was cruel.

“I spent five years chained to a tree for 24 hours a day,” Pérez said last weekend during my visit to his home in Melgar, outside Bogota. “While in captivity, I had a heart attack, two diabetic comas, one of my kidneys stopped working. I never had medical assistance or medicines.”

The physical pain, he recounted, was nothing compared to the mental suffering he encountered while in the jungles.

“The psychological impact is strong first the trauma of the kidnapping and then after a few seconds you realize you have lost your freedom, you are chained and can not move 2 steps to the left or two steps to the right,” Pérez said.

He first thought about the simple things in life: ‘How am I going to pay my credit card bill this month? What about the meeting in Europe that was planned – how will I explain my absence?’

Then, later that first day in captivity, a deeper reality set in.

“Once you realize the magnitude of what is happening, you start to realize the impact on your family, and especially your kids, how the news of your capture is going to impact them,” he said.

On that first day, the guerillas stripped him of all his clothes and personal possessions and gave him a prisoner uniform and plastic rain boots. All he had left of his own was a ring that was passed down to him from his father that he wore on one finger.

A female guerilla with a gun said she was going to kill him unless he handed it over.

His response: “Go ahead, kill me, but I am not giving you this.”

In was nearly seven long years of daily humiliation sleeping in the mud on the floor of the jungle with only a tarp as a blanket, being chained to people as he relieved himself in holes dug in the ground.

Below: Watch “Proof of Life” – an Al Jazeera documentary co-produced by Pacha Films about Luis Eladio Pérez

He was finally liberated in 2008 in a humanitarian handover orchestrated by Venezuela and former Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba.

Perhaps surprisingly, when he received word he would be released, his first emotion was not joy, but fear.

“From the moment I heard on the radio I would be released, I started to live in a period of confused feelings: I kept asked myself, ‘What am I going to do on the outside? What will I find? What family will I find? Will I find my wife? My kids?” he remembered. “I knew seven years of being away as a hostage, with no contact, that it would be hard to reintegrate back into society and all those circumstances made me afraid of the moment of the release.”

The day he was reunited with his family, the initial euphoria briefly masked the troubles that lie ahead.

“We all came with difficulties and traumas – with scars that are difficult to erase,” he said. “Anxiousness, different levels of depressions, mood changes. But also life changes because there were seven lost years for me that you will never recover from…We change too, but also family changes, and trying to adapt to those changes generates difficulties. But all these traumas vanish in front of happiness in the initial moments of being freed.”

After spending years in the jungle, the first feelings most freed FARC hostages from Colombia feel after being released is insomnia.

“The air pollution in the city made my eyes and nose burn,” he said. “The noises of the city – cars, people, horns – is also disturbing compared to the tranquil sounds of the forest.”

He said after a while, the hardest part after his release was when he began to ask himself another question: “How can I make myself useful in society again?”

Pérez knows all 10 of the hostages released this week they were sometimes held together or all crossed paths while being marched through the forest by their captors.

Pérez now fears they will go through the same difficulties that he did after being released, but much worse.

“If I left some with traumas, they will have double,” he said. “I was held for almost seven years, these guys have been held for 12, 13, and 14 years in captivity.”

What advice would he give to those former hostages released this week on transitioning back into society?

“Surround yourself with love….While in captivity you generate an emotional wall around yourself to survive,” he said. “You have to destory that wall, and not be selfish. Because you are not the only one who needs love, your family suffered as well, maybe sometimes even more than you.”

Pérez, as a former senator, receives a pension that allows him to live with some comfort. Most of the police and military hostages are not as lucky and were from fairly low ranks their pensions are decidedly lower.

(Video: 10 former hostages recount their experiece)

There have reportedly been cases in Colombia of former hostages not being able to work, and begging on the streets for money.

Pérez said beyond any money, he hopes they all get permanent physical and psychological help. They will need it, he says.

“Many of these guys are going to find out while they were away they lost their homes, many lost their girlfriends or wives. And it’s not their fault, it was a long wait.”

Pérez has settled in to a new life and has re-married. He has given up formal politics, written a book about his experience, and sometimes teaches or gives lectures.

His health is “so-so,” he says. He shows me a large scar on his chest. Jungle captivity takes its toll on the body.

He now spends many of his days overseeing work on a small house with a pool in a gated community he is having built out side of Bogota a block away from his home. It’s for his adult children and grandkids to be close to him.

But every time there is a new hostage release he is called by journalists to comment.

Last week, he showed me a dozen emails on his Blackberry from media, some from abroad, asking him for an interview. He didn’t respond to any of them, he said.

“I am trying to move on,” he said.

Moving on, yes, but knowing  that while free from one form of captivity, he and others like him likely are still held hostage on another long road to recovery from the physical and emotional aftermath.

Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel

With reporting from Maria Elena Romero

All of the last 10 FARC police and military hostages freed in Colombia on this week:

Luis Alfonso Beltran Franco

(held hostage since 1998)

Watch story about Beltran’s mother final preparations for her son’s return home here.  

(held hostage since 1998)

Robinson Salcedo Guarin

(held hostage since 1998)

Luis Arturo Arcia

(held hostage since 1998)

Jose Libardo Forero

(held hostage since 1999)

Carlos Jose Duarte

(held hostage since 1999)

Wilson Rojas Medina

(held hostage since 1999)

Jorge Humberto Romero

(held hostage since 1999)

Jorge Trujillo Solarte

(held hostage since 1999)

Cesar Augusto Lasao

(held hostage since 1998)

More from Features
Most Read