Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Ingrid Betancourt Woke Me Up

I tend to stress out when I'm on deadline. I'll circle my room like a dog preparing to lie down, and when I finally do get down to work, it will start out feeling so arduous. But then I'll learn about someone who has done something far braver than I, something requiring much more intellect or raw individual power, someone who has faced situations more harrowing and unimaginable than those I have ever experienced, and then I'll stop circling.

One such example is an interview I heard recently with Ingrid Betancourt, the former Colombian politician who was running for president in 2002 when she was abducted by the terrorist organization the FARC. I first learned about Ms. Betancourt back in 2007, when I was working for the International Museum of Women in San Francisco. We were curating an online exhibit on Women, Power and Politics, and it was hard not to see the parallel between notable female presidential candidates in the months leading up to the 2008 election here in the States.

I remember watching a soul-wrenching documentary about Ms. Betancourt's presidential campaign, which, after she was taken away, was carried on by her then-husband. Kidnapping is such a big problem in Colombia that there are laws stating that political candidates can continue their campaigns even if they themselves cannot participate; in the case of Ms. Betancourt, her husband stepped up in her place. The documentary filmmakers had started the film before she was abducted, so it was especially tragic to see the interviews with her, bright-eyed and idealistic, in the months before her forced exile. By the time I learned who she was in 2007, she had been away for five years, which I took to mean that if she hadn't died already, she probably wouldn't survive.

And then, somewhat miraculously, she reappeared in 2008. I remember hearing the news rather off-handedly,so subtly that I thought perhaps I had made it up. But then I heard her on KQED's Forum, in an interview with Dave Iverson, talking quite earnestly about what it felt like to be captive in the jungle, struggling to hear her mother's voice over the radio airwaves. This was a woman of privilege, who during her latter year or so of captivity, was chained to a tree by her neck. And yet the honesty and emotion with which she expressed herself really woke me up.

Ms. Betancourt's experience - that was true captivity. There was no circling there. I was listening to her interview while biking to work, and by the time I got there and removed my headphones, it was as if I was aware of new sounds in the world.

There are more out there like her - maybe next time I'm stressing about a paper or a deadline I'll revisit Aung San Suu Kyi.

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