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Colombians Snap Up Hostages' Memoirs

In this new book, three Americans describe their experiences.
In this new book, three Americans describe their experiences. (AP)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

BOGOTA, Colombia -- In a new book titled "Out of Captivity," three Americans describe being chained at the neck by rebel guards during five years of imprisonment in Colombia's jungles, and reveal tensions among themselves and their fellow hostages.

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Another former hostage, Fernando Araújo, recounts in his book the anguish of finding his wife with another man after his escape from the guerrillas' clutches.

Luis Eladio Pérez writes that during the years he was held by the rebels, he came to realize what a self-absorbed politician he had been. Lucy Artunduaga, whose husband was a hostage, writes about learning that he had fallen in love with another captive during his six years in the jungle. And Colombia is breathlessly awaiting what Ingrid Betancourt, a French Colombian politician and the most famous of all the former captives, will say in a book expected later this year.

These days, bookstores in Colombia are full of gripping tales by former hostages detailing how they survived forced marches, military bombing runs, jungle-borne parasites and the abuse of sadistic guards. A few of the authors, though, have gone deeper, exploring their frailties under harrowing conditions or recounting the inevitable human drama that unfolded in the jungle, from rivalries in makeshift prisons to the romances that blossomed between some hostages.

The books have generated a swirl of controversy in a country where people tend to be wary of airing intimacies in public. Some here -- including newspaper columnists, radio talk-show hosts and the more discreet of the former hostages -- have strongly rebuked the trend.

"It is not at all clear what is accomplished with the avalanche of revelations that, at times, seem to question the behavior of the victims of a horrible scourge more than point the finger at those who perpetrate this crime," El Tiempo, Colombia's leading newspaper, said in an editorial. "This sad spectacle should end."

Readers, though, are spellbound -- and the books have been selling briskly.

"Held Hostage Seven Years by the FARC," by Pérez, a former member of Colombia's Congress, has sold 27,000 copies in Colombia -- a country where selling 3,000 books is considered a success. The Colombian military has issued its account of the daring ruse that liberated the Americans and 12 other hostages last July. Even Cuba's ambassador to Venezuela, German Sanchez, has penned a book on the hostage saga (with a prologue by Fidel Castro).

The phenomenon has opened a window into Colombia's particularly twisted and painful history of kidnappings, which first gained worldwide attention a generation ago when cocaine cartels seized people as a tactic in their war with the state. By the late 1990s, more than 3,000 Colombians were being kidnapped annually, mostly for ransom. Then this decade, the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began to seize prominent personalities to use as political pawns in its dealings with the government.

Last year, Colombia was consumed with the accounts of torturous jungle life that filtered out in letters written by hostages. Colombia's news media focused relentlessly on each dramatic story.

"People are seeing in TV, in radio and in newspapers, all the time, stories about people who have been kidnapped," said Marianne Ponsford, editor of Arcadia, a leading arts and culture magazine in Bogota. "People want to know the stories about the victims. There's a sentimental, very emotional attachment to these people who they've seen on television."

Book publishers know this all too well, said Ponsford, a former book editor. She said that has prompted publishers to sign authors and produce books as fast as possible -- most of which provide few personal revelations or even telling anecdotes. Some of those books have come out in less than a month.

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