Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Thoughts on Captive by Clara Rojas

When I am in a bookstore I have a tendency to just wander around until a book jumps out at me.  On occasion, I will go to the bookstore with the intention of purchasing a specific book, but most of the time I just like to wander and see what jumps out at me.

That's how I came across the book Captive by Clara Rojas.  I was wandering around the bookstore, drinking some wonderfully pomegranate flavored tea when I came across this memoir.  I kind of run hot/cold on memoirs, finding some of them to be really quite wonderful and others to be really quite self-centered, but I grabbed this book from the shelf and looked at it.  At the bottom of the front cover it says "2,147 Days of Terror in the Colombian Jungle".  Well, that made me flip the book to the back cover to read about this book, which I promptly added to my growing stack of books.

Captive is the story of Clara Rojas' kidnapping by the Colombian guerrilla army, FARC, and the years she spent held as their hostage.  Rojas was kidnapped in 2002, along with her then friend Ingrid Betancourt, and was held until 2008, when a negotiation mediated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba resulted in the release of Clara Rojas, Consuelo Gonzales and Rojas' young son, Emmanuel (whom she conceived and delivered in the jungle while held in captivity).  This book was translated from Spanish to English by Adriana V. Lopez (I don't really know if that makes any kind of difference to a reader, it certainly doesn't make a difference to me, I love reading works by authors from all over the world and I am greatly appreciative of the fact that there are people out there who can translate their works for me to enjoy).  Rojas lays out the details of her captivity with clarity and, in my opinion, honesty.  She is very real about how she felt during those years as a hostage of the FARC and in many ways I think this made her perseverance more amazing to me.

The book begins with what she was doing the day before she was kidnapped and then moves forward to her life after release.  Unlike some memoirs, where the author takes you on a daily or even weekly trip with them, Rojas tells her story according to the theme of the chapter.  Each chapter is titled, things like "The Day Before the Kidnapping" or "Doubt and Anxiety" or "Pastimes", and within that chapter the story followed the the idea presented in the title.  I liked that presentation of her story, it presented her story on several layers and gave a good picture of what the hostages did at each camp they were held at.

After finishing this book on July 20, 2011, I felt a lot of things.  I was glued to this story, Rojas' is a very strong woman, I think.  I don't know if I'd be able to hold up as well if I were to be in that same situation.  I guess you never know just how strong you are until. . . I don't know, I guess until that's all you have.  Clara Rojas was strong on many levels while in captivity.  I definitely believe her faith and belief in God helped see her through days that could have resulted in a weaker person taking their own life to end the pain.  Hope, she had a lot of that.  She hoped to one day see her mother and brother and the rest of her family.  She hoped to one day be free and away from that hot jungle.  I believe that faith and hope can get a person very far in this world, it's when you lose all hope and all faith, that you're soul dies.  That's my own personal belief, and I think in some ways reading about Ms. Rojas' captivity, it made me look at my own beliefs in a way.

I believe she is strong, and as a strong woman she was able to survive her ordeal by remaining hopeful.  There were definitely points where she fell into a depression, who wouldn't?  In her case, I think those times of depression only resulted in strengthening her resolve to remain hopeful and believe that God was with her and would take care of her.  That's some pretty strong belief right there.  I admire that about her, actually.  I admire that her faith figured so strongly for her during the 6 years she was held by the FARC.  I honestly don't know if I would be able to find that strength in my own faith.  My religious beliefs waiver on many occasions and at this point in time, I'm rebuilding my own beliefs and figuring out what where God is in my life and quite possibly where I am in His/Hers.

Clara Rojas' friendship with Ingrid Betancourt fell apart while they were captives, which is unfortunate, but maybe it was also for the best.  I wonder if, in some ways, if this was a friendship that fits in the "reasons, seasons, lifetime" type of process.  Possibly this was a friendship for a reason -- Rojas was an attorney who worked on Betancourt's political campaign and they were both from the same party?  Possibly this was a friendship for a season -- political allies traveling together through FARC controlled territory to discuss party issues with allies in another Colombian city?  I don't know, but I don't think this was a friendship that was meant to be a lifetime one.  The way Clara describes the discussions she had with Ingrid leading up to the day they were kidnapped, it did not seem to me that these were two women who shared a sisterly type of love and friendship for one another.  I could be wrong, of course.  Although I think it is for the best that their friendship ended, I was saddened by the pain that Rojas felt as their friendship fell apart.  It is always painful to lose a friend and I can sympathize with Rojas as she lost the only friend she had in the jungle.  Overall, by the end of the ordeal, Clara shows herself to be the bigger person when it came to Ingrid.

I was curious about the fact that she gave birth to a son in the middle of the jungle and wondered for most of the book how it happened.  Not so much how she got pregnant, I know all about the birds and the bees, but more wondering if there was going to be some kind of love story wrapped into this captivity story.  I couldn't really imagine falling in love with someone in the middle of something so stressful as a hostage crisis, but stranger things have happened to people and since I'm not in her shoes, I can't really say I know anything about it anyway.  The thing I have to say I respect and admire about this particular part of her story is that she chooses to keep it private.  She does not, as she relates the story of her pregnancy and harrowing delivery, go into detail about how she came to be pregnant, she does not reveal the identity of the father, does not indicate if he was a guerrilla or a fellow hostage.  What she does is say that she has decided to leave the details of her pregnancy for a time when her son, Emmanuel, approaches her and asks.  I like that.  It makes sense, because, honestly, it's none of my business how she came to be pregnant, what is my business is what is on the page and I respect that she is choosing not to tell me anything more.  She manages to survive an unexpected pregnancy at the age of 39 in the middle of the Colombian jungle and delivers with little medical comfort -- a male nurse, a female nurse and a group of guerrillas providing light and support.  Here's the kicker -- due to complications, her son is brought into this world in a hut by Cesarean section while she is heavily sedated, and a single 100 watt light bulb shining over them.  I realize there are people out there who will say "women have been giving birth much longer than there's been doctors and modern medicine and hospitals" but really?  No woman should have to be delivered by C-section by a nurse in the middle of a jungle while being held against her will, and yet that's what happened to Clara Rojas and it's pretty amazing that she and her son survived.

At that point in the book, I had to go online and see if I could find a picture of her and her son.  I was curious to see them.  On the cover of the book, there is a small picture of her, but I wanted a better one.  I actually wanted to see her smiling, I thought "I bet she has one of those smiles that feels like the warmth of the sun upon your skin".  I was right too.  She does.  There are several pictures of her alone as well as pictures of her with her son and her family (the family ones are from when she arrived in Venezuela after her release).  She does have a warm smile.  The birth of her son is a miracle really, given the little medical resources that were available.  After his birth, she continues to push forward, wanting to live and survive for her son and her mother, because she knew one day she'd be with her mother again.  Hope.  Faith.  Strength.

Unfortunately, young Emmanuel becomes ill and after attempting to deal with the parasitic infection he gets from a bug bite, he is taken away from Clara to be treated.  He was only 8 months old when they took him away from her, and she wouldn't see him again until close to his 4th birthday.  Now that's what I call heartbreaking, and she definitely was heartbroken but she still had that strength of spirit or strength of will, but she knew that she'd see him again.  This is a woman that the word "pessimism" is not in the vocabulary for.  Neither is "skepticism".  Through the efforts of President Hugo Chavez and Senator Piedad Cordoba, the hostages discovered that Clara and Consuelo would be released to the Red Cross International, as well as Emmanuel, and they would be sent to Venezuela to be reunited with their families.  Her hope and faith and strength saw her through to the day she'd been praying for, but of course it was going to take awhile for her to actually taste sweet freedom, but not once did I get the impression that she didn't realize this either.  She was practical and realistic, while remaining hopeful in the knowledge that she would soon be out of that jungle and safe with her family.  How can someone not lose their mind at the thought of being free?  I think I would have gone crazy in the days leading up to my freedom, especially since there was no specific date set.  But, she remained calm outwardly (she does admit that she rejoiced inwardly, thanking God repeatedly), and she just made sure she was prepared because at any moment the Commandante could tell her she was leaving to go home.  The days leading up to freedom coincided with the Christmas and New Year's holidays and each day, as people around the world were eagerly looking forward towards opening presents and welcoming in a new year with new possibilities, she was looking forward to a day when she would see her son and mother again, and be able to taste the sweetness of freedom.

I am an emotional person and, while I was able to maintain most of my calm while reading her story, I have to admit I fought back tears as she related what it was like seeing the Red Cross International helicopters and flying out of the jungle towards the Colombian/Venezuelan border, leaving the copters and getting on a plane to be reunited with her family, scanning the crowd to find her mother as the plane taxied to a stop.  All of that just made my heart leap and tears came to my eyes.  I think she probably downplayed just how wonderful she felt as she landed and was able to actually touch her mother and her nieces and brother and cousins.  She was surrounded by media as she was reunited with her family, but it doesn't seem like they were suffocating.  Maybe that's how she chose to report it, maybe they really weren't all that suffocating, I don't know.  I mean, I've seen on the news how the media can rush at someone to get comments, but I've also seen how the media maintains a respectful distance in some situations, so maybe the media did it that way, remained at a respectful distance and just snapped pictures and waited patiently for her to give a press conference.  I kind of think not though.  Anyway, it was the way Clara was greeted by her family that tore at my heart.  She said she saw her mother who was now using a walker (she hadn't been using one the last time Clara saw her, so I'm sure it was a shock) and her mother took her face in her hands and looked at her.  Oh, tug at my heartstrings, why don't you?  I will admit, tears fell when I read about being reunited with her son, who thankfully had been delivered into the hands of the Colombian child welfare services organization and had been treated for his infection and was well fed and healthy by the time she saw him.  This is just happy ending all around, really.

Based on how Clara Rojas ends her book, where she talks about being able to forgive those who held her and her son captive, and being able to move forward with her life and returning to a normal life, I have to say she came out of this remarkably intact.  Her soul was not destroyed and she has learned something that so many of us don't always truly learn -- how to forgive those who have hurt us.  It's not easy being able to forgive someone for a wrong they have done against us, and I would think that being held captive for 6 years and being separated from your own child for 4 years would qualify for an unforgivable act, yet she has forgiven her captors.  She has dedicated her life to fighting for what she believes is right, working to release more hostages from the FARC, as well as working to improve child welfare and the environment.  I admire her, on a lot of levels.  If I could end up with a tenth of the strength this woman has, I'd consider myself pretty lucky.  I am adding Ms. Rojas to my list of people I admire and who have had an impact on me.  I don't think her story is one that I am going to forget, ever, but I think it will stick with me for quite some time.  This is an example of strength of the human spirit, and I'm glad to have been able to learn about it.

To Ms. Clara Rojas, I am humbled by your story and wish to send my thoughts and prayers to you and your son, Emmanuel.  I hope your continued efforts to release more hostages are so successful that one day you won't have to work so hard because there won't be any hostages!  Bless you, Ms. Rojas!  I hope one day, I may meet you and tell you in person just how remarkable I think you are.