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Colombia: emotions flow as released captives are reunited with their families

05-02-2009 Interview

The ICRC is helping to prepare the release of former lawmaker Sigifredo López, currently held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Patricia Danzi, ICRC head of operations for Latin America, describes recent missions that enabled five other people to return to their families.

  ©ICRC / co-e-00477    
Patricia Danzi at Villavicencio airport before departure by helicopter to pick up Alan Jara, the released hostage. 
Villavicencio airport, after the release of Alan Jara. 

 Ms Danzi, what impressed you most about the missions already completed?  

I cannot really explain the emotions I feel ... it was such a rewarding experience. In a country beset by decades of armed conflict – Colombia – hundreds of dedicated ICRC staff have worked hard for many months and years to alleviate the suffering of those affected. Most of the time, our work goes on far from the media spotlight, and we are not always rewarded with a burst of emotion such as we felt when we helped to reunite those five men with their wives, children, siblings and parents. Among the ICRC staff who took part in these missions are many who worked behind the scenes – meeting high-level officials, driving cars, operating radios, even preparing sandwiches for the helicopter crew. None of us will ever forget those moments. The memories will help us to carry on with our work in more ordinary times, because they make us realize that the ICRC’s long-term commitment to people affected by armed conflict does bear fruit.

But it was not only we who were touched by this unique experience. The members of Colombians for Peace and the Brazilian helicopter crew were also very moved by the fact that their work had made such a difference in the lives of the people who were released and their families. In fact, I am thrilled to see that the whole country has been taking part, at least emotionally, in the release missions. In recent days, people have been glued day and night to their radios and TV sets, sharing in the joy of the families that have been reunited.

 How did the five men react when they were released?  

The soldier and the three police officers who were released last Sunday had been in the hands of the FARC for a year and a half. Last December they heard on the radio that the FARC would release some policemen and military personnel, but until the day of their release they did not know that it was their turn to return to freedom. When they saw us, their emotions burst forth – you could see how elated they were, and you could imagine all the things that must have been going through their minds when they realized what was happening. Inside the helicopter, some of them became calmer while others showed their feelings with hugs and kisses. All of them thanked everybody profusely for having made their release possible.

On Tuesday, the FARC handed over Alan Jara, the former governor of Meta. He greeted us warmly and said: “It's very nice to see you after seven and a half years of captivity!” I am impressed at how he was able to keep up his spirits – and those of other captives – during the many long and difficult years in the jungle. We cannot imagine how it must be to live more than seven years in this humid climate, constantly bitten by mosquitoes and exposed to malaria and many other tropical diseases (with hardly any medical care available), not to be able to take a shower or change clothes for long periods at a time, and not to have a comfortable bed to sleep in at night. He said he used his time in captivity to teach foreign languages and other subjects to fellow hostages, members of the community and the FARC. Every night he would plan the next day’s lessons. His captors gave him everything he needed for his " jungle school. " Mr Jara mentioned that he was able to hear the voices of members of his family on the radio on only three occasions. He showed me some newspaper clippings with photos of his wife and son – a treasure he kept in a plastic bag during all his years of captivity.

 What challenges did the ICRC face during and before the first two missions?  

The fact that media attention has been so high has not always made things easy. Everything that participants in the missions were doing, or not doing, and saying, or not saying, was immediately reported and interpreted by the media. In the midst of media speculation of all sorts, it was very important for us never to lose sight of our goal, which was to bring the three policemen, the soldier and the two lawmakers back to their families safely, quickly and in good health.

During the first handover mission – last Sunday – many things did not go according to plan. This delayed our work and we had no choice but to fly back at nightfall, something we hadn't planned at all! We had to coordinate our actions closely with the Colombian government, the FARC, the Colombians for Peace and the Brazilian helicopter crew, and everybody involved in the field and in Bogotá had to adapt to a rapidly evolving situation in order to cope with the unexpected.

Brazil's involvement gave the missions an international dimension. The fact that a third country was willing to provide logistical support for a humanitarian operation is very commendable. Everybody agrees that the Brazilian helicopter crew are very professional and are doing a tremendous job despite their lack of familiarity with the area where they have to do the flying.

Because the red cross emblem was used unlawfully by the Colombian armed forces last July in its rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other persons held by the FARC, coming in to FARC-controlled territory with yet another helicopter displaying the red cross emblem was of course still an issue for them. It was necessary to rebuild a lot of trust with them. Clearly, if we want to continue to serve as a neutral intermediary, we need the trust of all parties to the conflict. While the handovers were taking place we had occasion to take note of the points made by some FARC commanders, and we shared our views with them. We hope that these discussions will help build up trust for the future.

 Is it possible that more releases will take place in the near future?  

The joy that we feel at seeing families come together after so many hard years apart should not allow us to forget those who are still waiting to be reunited with their loved ones. Some soldiers and police officers have been held by the FARC for over 10 years in very difficult conditions. A few days ago I was approached by a woman who asked me: " What about my husband? I don’t even know if he is being held by any armed group, or if he is still alive or not! " In Colombia, there are thousands of people whose whereabouts remain unknown. The ICRC will continue to work in Colombia not only to help with the release of hostages and to find out what became of missing persons, but also to assist tens of thousands of people displaced by the armed conflict, to help victims of anti-personnel landmines, and to visit thousands of people held in connection with the armed conflict in government detention facilities.

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