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Freed Journalist Back to Work

A Torrance Writer Who Was Held in Colombia Prepares to Go to Iraq

January 31, 2003|Hanah Cho | Times Staff Writer

Just days after being released by Colombian paramilitary kidnappers, a Torrance writer was back at work this week, writing a magazine piece about his ordeal and preparing to go to Iraq in anticipation of U.S. military action.

Robert Young Pelton, 47, author of the book "The World's Most Dangerous Places," and two other Americans returned home over the weekend after being held captive for 10 days along the Colombia-Panama border.

One of them, Megan A. Smaker, said she has been rushing from one doctor's office to another since returning home to Brentwood, Calif., in the Bay Area, to make sure she's healthy. Smaker said she was feeling good.

"Basically, I've been poked, prodded and picked at by doctors," the 22-year-old seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry said Thursday.

The other traveler, Mark Wedeven, 22, a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was unavailable for comment.

Their ordeal, Pelton said Thursday, didn't surprise him.

"I think most journalists who work in war zones are familiar with being detained, questioned and mishandled sometimes," he said. In fact, Pelton said, he had expected to encounter Colombia's right- or left-wing paramilitaries and had contacted both groups ahead of his travel.

Pelton said he had been fairly confident that the 150 armed men would not hurt them once it was clear that he was an American journalist and the others were tourists.

"You don't fear for your life; you just want to know what's going on," Pelton said.

He had been on assignment for National Geographic's Adventure magazine and had met Smaker and Wedeven in Panama. The three decided to travel together to Panama's Darien Gap, Pelton said.

They were a week into their journey when, on the morning of Jan. 14, they heard gunfire along the trail. As their guides ran away, Pelton suggested the three walk into the ambush.

"If you run away, you're hunted after," Pelton said.

For 10 days, longer than previously reported, the three marched sporadically through the jungle, were generally treated well and fed at least five times a day, Pelton said.

During the ordeal, Smaker and Wedeven were calm but tired, Pelton said.

The right-wing paramilitary group said it was holding them to protect them from leftist guerrillas belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

On Jan. 23, they were released in the town of Unguia, about 200 miles from Bogota.

Although Pelton has had run-ins with danger in war-torn places such as Chechnya and Afghanistan, he said he doesn't consider himself a risk-taker. His next adventure could take him to Iraq if the United States acts against the Arab country.

"I do it because it's an interest for me," he said. "It's a great reward to bring attention to the plight of people who are abused and not focused on by the mainstream media."

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