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I did not see them arrive. One of them circled me, his face red like a little pig's, his blond hair bristling. He held his rifle above his head, arms outstretched, and he was jumping and gesticulating, indulging in a ridiculous, violent war dance. A blow to the ribs made me realize that there was a second man, a short, dark man with powerful shoulders and bowed legs. He had just thrust the barrel of his rifle into the flesh above my hips, and he pretended he was restraining himself from doing it again. He was shouting and spitting, insulting me with crude, absurd words.

I could not see the third man. He pushed me from behind. His laugh was nasty, and his presence seemed to excite the other two. He grabbed my bag and emptied it on the ground, poking through things he knew were precious to me with the toe of his boot. He laughed and crushed them in the mud with his heel, then forced me to pick them up and put them back in my bag. I was on my knees when I saw the flash of a metal object in his hands. That is when I heard the clank of the chain, and I leaped up to face him.

Yiseth had stayed there beside me, holding me firmly by the arm and pushing me forward to walk. The guy who was laughing motioned to her to leave. She shrugged her shoulders, avoided my gaze, and left me there.

*****


I was tense and absent, my heart pounding. We went forward a few yards. The men were circling me, barking. The clank of the chain became insistent. The guy was playing with it as if to bring it to life, as if it were a snake. I would not let myself make any eye contact. I tried to rise above all this agitation, but my peripheral vision apprehended gestures and movements that made my blood run cold.

I was taller than they were. I held my head straight and high, and my entire body was tense with anger. I knew there was nothing I could do against them, but they were not sure of that. They were the ones who were afraid, more afraid than I was—I could feel it; however, they had hatred on their side, and group pressure.

The man with the chain said my name, over and over, with a familiarity that was meant to be insulting. I had decided that they would not hurt me. Whatever happened, they would not touch the essence of who I was. I had to cling to this fundamental truth. If I could remain inaccessible, I might avoid the worst.

My father's voice spoke to me from very far away, and a single word came to mind, in capital letters. I repeated it again and again, like a prayer, like a magical incantation that might, perhaps, break the evil spell. Dignity. It no longer meant a thing, but saying it repeatedly made me adopt my father's attitude, like a child who copies the expression on an adult's face, smiling or weeping not because he feels joy or pain but because by miming the expressions he sees, he triggers in himself the emotions they are meant to represent.

Through this game of mirrors, without my thoughts having anything to do with it, I understood that I had gone beyond fear, and I murmured, "There are things that are more important than life."

My rage had left me, giving way to an extreme coldness. This was not resignation—far from it, nor was it a headlong flight. I observed myself from within, measuring my strength and resistance not according to my ability to fight back but rather to submit to those blows, like a ship that is battered by the tides yet will not sink.

The man came very close to me and tried to loop the chain quickly around my neck. Instinctively I dodged him and took a step to the side, out of reach. The other two did not dare come forward, but they shouted abuse to encourage him to try again. His pride wounded, he held himself back, gauging the precise moment to attack again. We glanced at each other, and he must have read in my eyes my determination to avoid violence, taking it for insolence. He leaped forward and struck me with the chain, landing a blow to my skull. I collapsed on my knees, the world spinning around me. After the initial blackness, I held my head between my hands and stars appeared in flashes before my eyes, until gradually my eyesight returned to normal. I felt intense pain, compounded by a great sadness that washed over me in successive waves as I registered what had just happened. How could he have done this? I opened my eyes again upon the world, and again my gaze met his. His eyes were bloodshot, his lips distorted by a snarl. He could not bear for me to look at him—he was stripped naked before me. I had caught him looking at me with the horror that his own gestures inspired in him.

He regained his composure and, as if to eradicate all trace of guilt, redoubled his efforts to fasten the chain around my neck. I stubbornly fought off his gestures, each time avoiding physical contact as much as possible. He took hold of himself and, gathering momentum, came at me yet again with the chain, making hoarse grunts to multiply the strength of his blow. I fell down in the darkness, senseless, losing all notion of time. I knew that my body was the object of their violence. I could hear their voices around me echoing loudly.

When I finally managed to sit up, I had the chain around my neck and the man was pulling on it, jerkily, to oblige me to follow him. He was foaming at the mouth as he shouted at me. The way back to the camp seemed very long under the weight of my humiliation and their sarcasm. One in front of me, two others behind, they were loudly exulting in their victory. I did not feel like crying. It wasn't pride. It was just scorn. The cruelty of these men and the pleasure they derived from it had not reached my soul.

Excerpted from Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © Ingrid Betancourt, 2010.

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