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Former FARC Hostage Ingrid Betancourt Returns To Colombia

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt became a symbol of her country's brutal guerrilla war 14 years ago. She was held for six years in jungle prison camps. Betancourt now lives in France, but she returned to Columbia this week to speak as the government negotiates a peace treaty with the group that took her hostage. Here's reporter John Otis.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: When she ran for president in 2002, Ingrid Betancourt took her campaign into rebel-held territory and was promptly kidnapped by FARC guerrillas. She endured forced marches while chained by the neck to other prisoners, food shortages. And malaria left her emaciated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

OTIS: Betancourt recalled such horrors in a speech today before a packed audience in Bogota.

INGRID BETANCOURT: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "It was a world where barbarity was all around us," Betancourt said. She recalled how guards chopped off the head of a 30 foot long anaconda in the river where she and fellow prisoners were bathing. She said the snake still pursues her in her dreams.

Betancourt tried to escape three times. During one attempt, she swam down rivers and hiked through the rainforest for six days before she was recaptured. Along with three kidnapped U.S. military contractors, she was finally rescued by Colombian special forces in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Betancourt returned to a hero's welcome that was broadcast on live television. But many Colombians soon turned against her. They were outraged when Betancourt in 2010 sued the Colombian government for alleged negligence on the day she was kidnapped. But it turns out security officials had strongly warned her against campaigning in rebel territory. It didn't help her image that she was suing the same government that had rescued her from the guerrillas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANCISCO SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At the time, Vice President Francisco Santos called Betancourt's lawsuit an active ingratitude. Amid the outcry, Betancourt dropped the lawsuit. Since then, she has studied theology at Oxford, written two books and mostly avoided Colombia. But she returned this week to lend her support to peace talks between the government and the FARC rebels.

The two sides have been negotiating in Cuba for nearly four years, but due to the FARC's longtime involvement in drug trafficking and kidnapping, many Colombians detest the guerrillas and have turned against the peace talks. In her speech, Betancourt said that's a mistake.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETANCOURT: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Betancourt said war victims like herself are often the strongest peace advocates. Meanwhile, she said those who manage to avoid the conflict are sometimes the most intransigent war mongers. In her own case, Betancourt claims to have forgiven the guerrillas who abducted her, but she told a Bogota radio station that she still feels traumatized by her years in the jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BETANCOURT: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "No matter how much I have forgiven, the truth is the pain is still present," she said. "Sometimes it explodes like a volcano that can't be contained." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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