Ingrid Betancourt
Photo: Eitan Abramovich/Getty Images
While campaigning for president of Colombia, she was abducted and held hostage for more than six years. In her new book, Even Silence Has an End, Ingrid Betancourt measures the distance between fear and freedom.
I had made my decision to escape. This was my fourth attempt. After my last one the conditions of our captivity had become even more terrible. They had put us in a cage made of wooden boards, with a tin roof. I'd spotted a half-rotten board in one corner, and by pushing hard with my foot, I split it enough to make an opening. In principle, if you could get your skull through the slats, your body would follow. I squeezed through the bars of the fence at Parc Monceau while playing a game as a child. But were the proportions the same for an adult? I was all the more worried because although my companion Clara and I were terribly thin, I had noticed over the past few weeks a sort of swelling of our bodies, probably liquid retention from enforced immobility.

I had spent entire days plotting, preparing in detail the equipment for our expedition, giving importance to stupid things: "I'll have to figure out what to do about the boots. At night we always leave them in the same place, at the entrance to the cage. I'll have to start bringing them inside, so the guards get used to not seeing them anymore when we're asleep.... And we'll have to get hold of a machete. To protect ourselves from wild beasts and to clear our way through the vegetation. It will be almost impossible. They're on their guard. They haven't forgotten that we already managed to steal one when they were setting up the old camp.... Take scissors—they lend them to us from time to time. I have to think about food, too. We have to stock up without their realizing. And it all has to be wrapped in plastic, because we'll have to swim. It can't be too heavy, or we'll have difficulty making headway. And I must take my treasures: I can't possibly leave behind the photos of my children and the keys to my apartment."

I spent the day turning such questions over and over in my mind. Twenty times or more, I thought about our route once we were out of the cage. I tried to calculate all sorts of things: where the river must be, how many days it would take us until we could get help. I imagined the horror of an anaconda attacking us in the water, or an enormous caiman like the one whose red and shining eyes I had seen in the guard's flashlight when we were coming down the river. I saw myself wrestling with a jaguar; the guards had regaled us with a ferocious description. I thought of everything that might possibly frighten me, to prepare myself psychologically and be ready to respond. I had to know how to control my emotions. I'd decided that this time nothing would stop me.

I had given up sleeping, because I realized that my brain worked better in the quiet of the evening. I'd taken note of everything: what time the guards changed watch, where each one stood, who stayed awake, who fell asleep, who would report on the number of times we'd gotten up to pee....

I had also tried to prepare Clara for the effort the escape would require, the precautions to take, the noises we must avoid making. She listened to me in silence, exasperated, and would answer only to refuse or disagree. Our two previous escape attempts had sowed tension between us. We didn't talk much. Stuck together like Siamese twins who have nothing in common, we lived in opposite worlds: She was trying to adapt; I could only think of escape.

I prayed to God to give me the strength to go through with it. "Tonight I shall be free."

From my previous attempts, I had learned that the best moment to slip away was at dusk, the hour when wolves look like dogs. In the jungle this meant precisely 6:15 P.M. During the few minutes while our eyes adjusted to the darkness and before night fell completely, we were all blind. That night, though, the opportune moment came and went and the expected storm had still not broken. The wind was blowing incessantly, but the thunder rumbled far away, and a certain tranquillity had returned to the camp. I touched Clara's arm; it was time to go.

I pulled away from Clara, smoothed my clothes, and lay down next to the hole in the rotten board. I put my head through with encouraging ease, and then my shoulders. I twisted to get my body through, felt stuck, then wriggled nervously to get one of my arms out. Once my arm was clear, I pushed. With the strength of my free hand, digging my nails into the ground, I managed to get my entire upper body out. I edged forward, painfully contorting my hips so that the rest of my body would slide sideways through the opening. At last I was out, and I jumped to my feet. I took two steps so that my companion could get out more easily. I bent down by the opening, calling to Clara so loudly this time that she must have heard me on the far side of the cage.

I stood up and was facing the dense jungle. The torrential rain had finally come. I would be alone outside. I had to be quick, leave right away. I checked to see if the rubber band holding my hair was still in place. I didn't want the guerrillas to find even the tiniest clue to the path I would take. I ran and ran, driven by an uncontrollable panic, avoiding trees instinctively, unable to see or hear or think, forging straight ahead until I was exhausted.