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Freedom is 'like being born again'

Children, spouse fly in to reunite with Betancourt

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ian James
Associated Press / July 4, 2008

BOGOTA - In her first hours of freedom, Ingrid Betancourt held her children tight, visited her father's grave, and sent her husband out to find oranges for breakfast.

"Last night was very beautiful," her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, said at the apartment of Betancourt's mother. "We talked all night long. We haven't slept."

After six years as a prisoner of Colombia's rebels, the former presidential candidate rushed onto the plane that brought her children from France and threw her arms around Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22.

"They're my babies. They're my pride and my reason for living, my light, my moon, my stars," Betancourt said, holding their heads close as they planted kisses on her cheeks.

While the three Americans rescued with Betancourt stayed out of sight in a military hospital in Texas, television cameras followed Betancourt everywhere, and adoring Colombians gathered in the streets to shower her with applause.

Betancourt emerged with a pallid complexion from years living under the forest canopy, but she beamed as she stood arm-in-arm with her children.

"Nirvana, paradise - that must be very similar to what I feel at this moment," said Betancourt, 46. "It's like being born again."

She and her family also visited the church that holds the remains of her father, who died while she was in captivity.

"God helped me during all these years," said Betancourt, who carried just a few items with her out of the jungle: a wooden rosary, intricately wrapped in yarn, that she made in captivity; a wristband she wove for her husband; and a knapsack with a dictionary she had begged the rebels to let her keep. "It weighs a ton," she said.

A dual French-Colombian citizen who grew up in Paris, Betancourt is due to arrive today in France, where she plans to meet with President Nicolas Sarkozy and then relax with her family.

Sarkozy had pressed for her liberation and even sent a plane to Colombia in an unsuccessful effort to provide medical treatment for her.

Betancourt, who was kidnapped while campaigning for Colombia's presidency in February 2002, was freed Wednesday in an elaborately planned operation involving military spies who tricked the rebels into handing over 15 hostages without firing a shot.

"If I live 100 years to be an old lady with gray hair, I'll keep marveling at what I saw, what I lived through yesterday," Betancourt said. "It's a miracle."

Betancourt has missed few opportunities since her rescue to thank Colombia's government, lobby for the freedom of other hostages, and call for diplomatic pressure to persuade the rebels to "take the path of conciliation, of negotiation, of peace."

After meals of rice and lentils in the jungle, she also longed for some fresh-squeezed orange juice.

"I brought her oranges, which was what she asked for," said Lecompte, who held up the bag of fruit.

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