Fairfield U. speaker: Freedom 'a blessing' after six years as hostage
The tall, well-dressed woman sitting on the stage of Fairfield University's Quick Center on Thursday had the stature of a fashion model. Ingrid Betancourt's posture offered a hint of the dignity she managed to maintain even after spending more than six years as a captive of a terrorist guerrilla organization in the jungle of her native Colombia.
The politically active Betancourt, once a candidate for president of her South American homeland, was kidnapped in 2002 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and held hostage 2,321 days. She and other captives were beaten, chained around the neck, subsisting on small portions of food and forced to make gruelling marches through the rainforest.
"We were facing death on a daily basis," Betancourt said.
After spending so much time with the FARC, Betancourt said she believes they are drug traffickers more than a political organization. She said they have no political platform, only a "patchwork of ideas."
"I discovered it was more like a gang," she said.
Betancourt told an audience of more than 400 people that she has watched closely the "Arab Spring" uprisings in the Middle East and hopes that the Colombian people will come together to end to the conflict that has raged for about a century.
"It is in our interest to change," she said.
Behind her black dress with one sheer sleeve and the four-inch leopard print heels was a woman described by Maria-Agnes Sourieau, a Fairfield U. professor of modern languages and literature, as "a symbol of endurance and courage in the face of horrendous adversity." Sourieau told the audience Betancourt, who was raised in France, was celebrated as a hero by the French government and its people after being rescued, along with 14 other hostages, in 2008 by Colombian security forces. She lives in France now.
Betancourt was hailed as a hero by many in the audience including a large contingent of Colombians from throughout Connecticut who came to hear her speak.
"Hers is not just a unique story, but she is an inspiration for all of us. I admire her strength. I admire her as a mother and as a woman ... She has been through so much. She is a motivation to others to have the strength to go on," said Guadalupe Morales Gotsch, a language and literature professor. "I honestly believe it's important for stories like this to be told."
Sourieau said the title of Betancourt's gripping, New York Times best-selling book, "Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle," is powerful because "it suggests the promise that someday the voice would be restored and freedom would be returned."
Betancourt is using her voice and her freedom to improve the lives of children in war through a foundation aimed at preventing the recruitment of young people by terrorists.
Answering questions from moderator Gisela Gil-Egui, a professor of communication, and from the audience, in both English and Spanish, Betancourt said she wrote the book as a way of sharing her experiences in captivity with her family because she was not able to articulate them when she first returned home, which was a difficult transition.
"The truth is, it's very hard to come back ... You come (back) to a world where everything is changed and you have to find your place ... When I say it's difficult, I don't mean that it's not joyful ... The life I have in freedom is a blessing," Betancourt said.
As she wrote, she kept at her side a jar of Nutella and a box of Kleenex, alternately crying and rewarding herself. "I was reliving everything. ... I was there again," Betancourt said.
Having a chance to listen to Betancourt and have her autograph their books was a personal experience to the many people who followed her story from the moment she was kidnapped.
Beatriz Ruiz, of Norwalk, a friend of Betancourt's aunt Nancy, said she heard about Betancourt's release on Colombian radio and was the first to inform her aunt. "Freedom is the most valued thing any human being can have," Ruiz said.
"We knew about her situation from the beginning, since she was captured, and we saw on the news when she was liberated. We followed her story (for six years) and when we heard she was going to be in Fairfield we decided to come to see her," said Blair Salcedo, of Bridgeport, who came with her mother, Carmen Guerra.
Betancourt's appearance is one of several among Fairfield University's Inspired Writer Series, which offers the public an opportunity to meet with and discuss the work of writers of fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry.
For information about other speakers in the Inspired Writer Series, visit www.fairfield.edu/authorseries.