Nearly a half-century long, the civil war in Colombia has seen its fair share of dramatic moments. But few stand out like Operation Checkmate. On July 2, 2008, Colombian soldiers disguised as members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group flew off with a rebel helicopter that had 15 hostages inside. Among those rescued was a former presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt. As she became the public face for all FARC hostages, Betancourt endured torture, humiliation and even friction with her fellow hostages. She has just written a book about the experience, entitled Even Silence Has an End. Betancourt sat down with TIME to discuss her captivity, and life after the release.
How did this experience change you?
I think that before I was a very stubborn person. I thought that you could change the world by sheer will. Now I am more serene. I had this vision of Colombia and of people divided into good and bad. Now I think things are not as simple. I think that Colombia's divided into two Colombias. There's a Colombia that lives like we live in the United States, forgetting what the other part of Colombia lives like, and wanting to forget.
Was it possible to maintain a sense of normalcy?
It's impossible. In the jungle, it's all just one gloomy, horrible day. And there were so many sources of tension. First, there was the space issue. Just picture yourself in a train. You have your little seat, and you know it's for half an hour. Now think about six and a half years. And now think that the only name you ever hear is this other person's name. That's very annoying, because my name was always in the news. And their reaction was, "Who does she think she is?" It took me a long time to understand that they were hurt. I was feeling that perhaps if my name was out there it would help all of us.
How did you cope with the captivity?
I couldn't shut up. One of the guerrillas was Afro-Colombian, and he said, "My ancestors were slaves, so that's why now I am a guerrilla. I want to fight for my freedom." And I said, "If this is true, how can you bear to see these guys chained like slaves." And it worked. I discovered that by talking, you always can find a little open door, through which you can touch the heart. The brain is good, but the heart is more powerful.
How were your politics changed by this experience?
I am of the generation who views [Ernesto] "Che" Guevara as a romantic figure. And I had the impression that perhaps the subversion in Colombia was a kind of romantic attempt to change the country. But I came across an organization with a military structure. It's not built for serving an ideal. Today, it works like a military-drug cartel. That's something they don't want to give up. Because as long as they think they can go on like this, there's no incentive for them to get into peace negotiations.
Your rescue was like a movie. What do you remember of it?
The soldiers of the Colombian military were heroes. The whole world was asking them not to put the hostages at risk. So the military infiltrated the FARC and made them think their orders were coming from their commander. But in fact it was the military giving the orders. It was brilliant. None of us wanted to get into that helicopter. That's incredible, now that I think about it. Once we were inside, though, the leader of the crew shouted, "We are the Colombian Army. You are free." We were yelling and shouting. And then I thought, "Wow, what are we going to do now?" We had no clue.
And yet, you have since sought compensation for the initial kidnapping. Can you clarify what has happened?
In Colombia, there is a law that protects victims of terrorism. And this law allows victims of terrorism to ask for compensation. The government distorted the facts and presented this compensation request as if I was attacking in court the soldiers who had liberated me.
Did you understand, though, when some people in Colombia reacted negatively to this?
Yes, because of the way the facts were presented. But here's how I put it: if your house burns down, and you ask for insurance to compensate you, it doesn't mean you are ungrateful to the firemen who saved your things. Plus, if somebody was responsible for my abduction, it wasn't the government that rescued me. It all happened in another government. And even that government, which withdrew my security, took out my bodyguards, let me go down that road without protection [when I was abducted in 2002 in San Vicente del Caguan] is not responsible for my abduction. The only responsible ones are the FARC. But when I see the reactions of Colombians against what is very natural to ask for compensation I just think that there are things that are wrong in my country. I don't understand how people can react with so much hatred. And it hurts, it hurts a lot.