All eyes were on the helicopter marked with Red Cross insignia as it emerged from the dusky sky and descended on a small airport in southern Colombia on Tuesday.
The helicopter, loaned by Brazil’s military, was carrying soldier Pablo Emilio Moncayo, a hostage released by Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, after more than 12 years in captivity. He was believed to be one of the world’s longest-held hostages.
Colombians watched special news coverage on big screens set up around the capital, while locals in Moncayo’s native town celebrated in the streets. Relatives holding white daisies embraced the soldier who was wearing army fatigues as he stepped off the helicopter.
“You don’t know how amazing it is to see civilisation again,” he told reporters camped out on the tarmac. The leftist rebels had snatched Moncayo during an attack on a jungle military base in 1997. He was just 19.
Over the years Moncayo’s father, teacher Gustavo Moncayo, has become a household name in Colombia. He walked halfway across the country to press for his son’s release while wearing chains around his neck and wrists as a symbol of his plight. On the tarmac Moncayo cut off the chains. “I heard that my father wanted me to take off the chains. So I’m going to do that right now,” he said throwing them on the floor.
If Moncayo’s experience is anything like the suffering described in the bestsellers written by other freed hostages, then he will have been chained to a tree as he slept, endured loneliness and forced marches through Colombia’s mountainous rainforests. It’s an ordeal survivors have described as the “green hell”.
Moncayo’s return was preceded by the release of another soldier, 23-year-old Josue Calvo, over the weekend. These are the first hostage handovers in more than a year by the FARC.
At the height of the group’s power in the late 1990s, around 3,500 Colombians were abducted each year – on average one person every three hours – earning the country the title as kidnap capital of the world. But a hard-line stance and military offensive against the rebels has led to a sharp drop in kidnapping rates in recent years. However, brazen abductions still take place in Colombia. Last year, a provincial governor was kidnapped and later found dead with his throat slit. The rebels claimed responsibility.
The FARC, who are thought to have around 9,000 fighters, says the unilateral and voluntarily release of hostages is a humanitarian good will gesture. But few believe it’s that straightforward. The move is being seen as an attempt to regain public support, political leverage and credibility.
The government, meanwhile, views the hostage handover as a cynical publicity stunt and an attempt to use the captives to score points ahead of Colombia’s presidential elections in May. And the recent releases have put the hostage issue back on the political agenda and reignited the debate about whether the government should ever negotiate the exchange of jailed rebels for hostages held by the FARC.
Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, said on Tuesday that he would not rule out prisoner exchanges as long as freed rebels did not return to guerrilla ranks.
The recent releases have also sparked controversy about how many people remain in captivity in Colombia. The government says there are 79 hostages, some with ransom demands, while the non-governmental organisation País Libre puts the figure at 136.
The FARC now says there will be no more unilateral hostage handovers and that the release of the remaining 22 policemen and soldiers it holds must involve a prisoner swap.
It’s likely this thorny issue will be at the top of the agenda for whoever is elected president after Uribe leaves office in August.