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THE WORLD

Ex-captive in Colombia recalls harrowing break

The hostage made a run for it during a raid, ending a six-year ordeal.

January 14, 2007|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA — Not a single one of his 2,224 days in captivity went by without Fernando Araujo thinking of escaping his captors. When his opportunity finally came amid the gunfire and chaos of a New Year's Eve military attack against the leftist rebels who were holding him, he took it.

With army helicopters whirring and soldiers firing overhead just yards above the tree-covered camp, he scurried away on all fours for the first 100 yards, waded across a small pond, then took off in a sprint through spiny underbrush and didn't stop for at least a mile, leaving his six-year ordeal behind. He was free.

"I was obsessed with escaping. I kept exercising, running in place, doing push-ups, the whole time I was a prisoner, just to be ready," Araujo, looking fit if weathered at 51, said during an interview last week at the oceanfront hotel his family owns here. "I never looked back."

A former Colombian development minister who was kidnapped while jogging in Cartagena in December 2000, Araujo spent six years being shuttled by rebels from one makeshift camp to another in remote northern Colombia.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday January 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombia abductions: An article in Sunday's Section A about the ordeal of Colombian kidnapping victim Fernando Araujo should have said the majority, not all, of the more than 3,000 kidnapping victims are held by leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The story also incorrectly said that presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was abducted in 2003. It was 2002.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 21, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombia abductions: An article in Section A on Jan. 14 about Colombian kidnapping victim Fernando Araujo should have said the majority, not all, of the more than 3,000 kidnapping victims are held by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The story also said presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was abducted in 2003. It was 2002.

"I was always alone, never held with other hostages," he said. "The guerrillas treated me well -- that's part of the rules. We are merchandise that they don't want damaged. But the boredom and uncertainty sometimes drove me to desperation."

Nation enthralled

Araujo's escape, which has held this nation in thrall since his reappearance and reunion with his family, has raised public awareness of the plight of more than 3,000 kidnapping victims still held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, many for as long or longer than Araujo.

The FARC and other guerrilla groups have carried out kidnappings for decades to raise money, make ideological points and barter for the release of comrades held in military prisons. Although the pace of kidnappings has declined since President Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, he has refused to negotiate any exchanges, and the number of hostages has remained high.

Pais Libre, an advocacy group formed by Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, himself a former kidnapping victim, estimates that more than 23,000 Colombians have been kidnapped since 1996. More than 1,200 hostages have died in captivity or during abortive rescue attempts.

The agony of captives and their families is among the saddest chapters of Colombia's long-running civil war. Families live in a wrenching limbo and often are torn apart during their loved ones' absences.

Araujo's wife left him during his captivity -- a fact he learned only upon his return to civilization.

His escape has also raised the issue of whether Uribe is doing enough to secure the release of the captives, and whether he is taking the proper path with his recent avowal to pursue only military rescues like Araujo's, instead of so-called "humanitarian accords" leading to prisoner exchanges with rebels.

"The process seems completely frozen, with a lack of political will on both sides," said Marleny Orjuela, head of Asfamipaz, a group representing the families of 35 police officers and soldiers who are among the kidnapped. Previous Colombian presidents agreed to exchanges, with the last one occurring in 2001 under then-President Andres Pastrana, who spent much of his term trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a peace accord with the FARC. But Uribe has taken a harder line and there have been no exchanges since he took office in August 2002.

Kidnap victims' advocacy groups oppose military rescues, saying they are too risky. They cite the 1991 killing of newscaster Diana Turbay, a main figure in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book "News of a Kidnapping"; and the 2002 killings of Guillermo Gaviria, the former governor of Antioquia state, and national peace commissioner Gilberto Echeverri. All were killed during abortive military rescues.

Araujo, in fact, was not rescued during the New Year's Eve operation that involved a team of army commandos sent to the Montes de Maria area in Bolivar state where intelligence indicated he was being held. Rather, after the chaos of the attack, he wandered for six days in desert and scrub land, surviving on cactus water and yucca plants, before meeting a friendly peasant who led him to police in the town of San Agustin.

"I had to keep walking because I knew not to approach farmers who lived near the camp. They could have been collaborators who would have given me up to the rebels, which would have meant death," Araujo said. "So I kept walking."

Araujo's four sons and parents had reluctantly approved of the military rescue, after the military told them late last month it had reliable information on his FARC captors' whereabouts. "Why we agreed is a difficult question to answer," said Araujo's oldest son, Luis Ernesto, 27.

"There were inherent risks and dangers. But we had to assume them. We trusted the military and President Uribe."

Used for bartering

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