As live television news goes, the hours-long broadcast last week of the orchestrated release of 33 hostages by the rebel National Liberation Army had more than enough pathos, politics and downright weirdness to make up for whatever soap operas it preempted.
Like much of life in this country torn by warring factions of left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary forces, drug barons and U.S.-funded police and military forces, it was a drama with elements of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Graham Greene -- and a pinch of Tom Clancy.
The hostages -- who were among more than 100 people seized last month during Sunday morning Mass by the rebel group, known by the initials ELN -- had been held captive more than two weeks. Then, as a light drizzle fell Tuesday at the designated release point -- a small town outside the city of Cali -- families of the hostages found themselves grimly fending off hand-held mikes in a jostling mass of TV teams, government representatives, humanitarian workers, priests and out-of-office politicians looking for some air time. Guerrillas, outfitted in starched camouflage and balaclavas, shouted into walkie-talkies and cell phones, apparently trying to monitor the delayed progress of the hostages being escorted on foot down from a rebel redoubt in the nearby mountains.
Standing a head higher than most of the damp, restive crowd was an incongruously blond-haired man in a blue shirt and blazer -- identified as a member of the German Parliament. Unseen but reportedly also present was a middle-aged married couple referred to by the Colombian media as German spies. The three were widely credited with arranging the night's events, much to the apparent consternation of the German Embassy in Bogota and its government in Berlin, which vigorously disassociated themselves from the three.
Nearly three hours behind schedule, the hostages finally appeared, trudging slowly out of the blackness into the bright lights. Mostly women, with a few elderly men and three teenage boys, wearing matching black rain ponchos, they walked single file, each with a hand on another's shoulder. They ignored the shouting reporters except for an occasional statement of name and an admission that they were treated all right.
Before being handed off into freedom, a few of the women turned and kissed the covered faces of the guerrillas.
For the ELN, the hostage release was an opportunity for publicity nearly unmatched in their decades-long struggle against a series of Colombian governments. The smaller, and more aggressively doctrinaire of two Marxist guerrilla armies here, they have reacted badly to the fact that President Andres Pastrana, who came to office last summer promising new peace negotiations, is talking only to the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
While Pastrana has granted the larger group a demilitarized zone comprising most of southeastern Colombia as negotiations proceed, he has ignored the National Liberation Army's demand for unchallenged control over four small municipalities in the northern part of the country. The Clinton administration, which held a low-level meeting with FARC representatives last December, will not give the smaller group the time of day.
In response, the National Liberation Army this spring began a rash of high-profile kidnappings -- 41 passengers and crew aboard a Colombian airliner in April, 143 worshipers from the Cali church last month, and assorted other smaller hostage takings -- that have appalled and frightened even the most battle-hardened Colombians.
With no one to talk to here and the FARC basking in at least a tiny glow of international acknowledgment, the ELN has tried to reactivate a long-dormant relationship with Germany.
As described in a cover article this week in Semana, Colombia's leading newsweekly, the relationship began in the early 1980s, when the guerrillas kidnapped four employees of the German engineering company Mannesmann. According to Semana, two alleged German secret agents, Werner and Isabel (a k a Michaela) Mauss, were brought in to negotiate under the direction of Bernd Schmidbauer, a member of Parliament from then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democratic Union. The hostages were freed, and Germans working here were thereafter rarely touched by subsequent hostage-taking. The Mausses and Schmidbauer became familiar, if always shadowy, figures on the Colombian landscape.
The position of the German Embassy here -- now under the new government of Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder -- is that it knows nothing of this past. Its official record of the trio's activity begins about three years ago, when Schmidbauer was Kohl's minister in charge of the German secret service and, working with the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. Mauss -- who are not recognized as government employees -- helped free another German hostage.
Then came new President Pastrana, the FARC peace talks and the church and airplane kidnappings. When the National Liberation Army announced it was prepared to release a significant number of hostages, it asked for the official participation of the German government and said it wanted Schmidbauer, now an opposition backbencher in the Bundestag, to be there. Seeing little recourse if he wanted the hostages freed, Pastrana last week sent official but separate invitations to Berlin and to Schmidbauer.
Once the hostages had arrived, the official release party gathered at a table under the dripping sky and addressed the cameras.
A guerrilla commander identified as Liliana stood and held a microphone to her covered mouth to angrily denounce a Colombian government she said "talks about peace and makes war" against the Colombian people.
Government representative Juan Gabriel Uribe stayed seated. Looking like there were a thousand places he'd rather be, he pronounced this "a happy moment, but also a sad one for Colombia" since the ELN still holds hundreds of other hostages, including many kidnapped from the Cali church.
The tall blond man, Schmidbauer, was seated to Liliana's left. He stood and began to speak in German, promising to be brief. He was there because the Colombian government invited him, he said, and he hoped that this night's events were the beginning of "an ongoing conversation over peace."
But there were more hitches to come. Within days, hostage families said they had been forced to pay money to the guerrillas for release of their loved ones -- counter to the ELN's agreement with the government. Late Friday night, an angry Pastrana denounced the "extortion" and said there would be no more talks until all remaining hostages were released unconditionally. After a four-hour dressing down by the president Saturday, Schmidbauer said they would work together to achieve this.
CAPTION: Vilma Rengifo is greeted by her brother in San Antonio after her release by the National Liberation Army. The group released 33 hostages last week.