After spending as long as 14 years held by leftist rebels in the jungles of Colombia, four soldiers and six policemen are now reuniting with children they barely know, wives they’ve never forgotten, and parents who never gave up hope of seeing their sons again.
The ten men were released yesterday by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group. They were the last of what the rebels considered “swappable” hostages, which they had hoped to exchange for jailed rebels.
The underweight hostages returned from the jungles with stomach problems, some parakeets, and a pet peccary, a wild pig common in the Amazon region.
The father of released hostage Wilson Rojas told El Tiempo newspaper that the reunion with his son was very emotional. “We hugged for three minutes and cried a lot. We choked up and couldn’t speak a single word,” said Victor Rojas. Wilson Rojas’s daughter Dayana was just two years old when he was kidnapped in July 1999, and yesterday he was greeted by a teenager.
Jonathan Salcedo said his father Sgt. Robinson Slacedo — who was kidnapped in 1998 when Jonathan was just four — didn’t recognize him. “I told him, ‘I’m your son,’” the young man said. His father brought him some tamed parakeets from the jungles where he was held captive for 14 years.
Contrary to previous hostage releases where reunions took place on airport tarmacs in view of dozens of television cameras, the family reunions yesterday evening were private and intimate. The former captives have not spoken to the press.
After visiting the former hostages today, President Juan Manuel Santos said he hopes the FARC will make good on their promise to end the practice of kidnapping, a commitment the rebels made in February when announcing the release of the ten servicemen. In a brief statement yesterday following the release, Mr. Santos said freeing the soldiers and policemen was a gesture that “we value in all its dimensions” and that it was an “important step in the right direction.”
But, he added, “It is not enough to end [the practice of] kidnapping. There are hundreds of families that don’t know the whereabouts of their loved ones who were kidnapped,” Santos said. “All hostages that are still in [the FARC’s] power must be released.”
The exact number of hostages still held by the FARC is hard to come by. However, the Pais Libre Foundation, which tracks kidnapping in Colombia, estimates there are 405 unaccounted hostages.
The FARC reiterated its call to begin peace talks with the government in a communiqué to the humanitarian commission who retrieved the hostages yesterday. While Santos welcomes the steps the FARC is taking, he also tried to temper hopes that negotiations are imminent.
“When the government considers the conditions are right, and there are guarantees to start a [peace] process that will end the conflict, the country will know,” he said.