Photo by Brian Moody
In 2003 film-maker Mark Henderson was trekking in the Colombian jungle with a group of foreign tourists when he was taken hostage by the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Mark, along with four Israelis, were held for a total of 101 days. Six years after his release he returned to Colombia to meet one of his captors, Antonio, to make a documentary.
At 4.30 a.m a group of armed men burst into our hut in the Lost City and took us hostage. For the first few days it didn’t really sink in. It was more like an adventure film than reality because that was my only reference point. I’d never met guys in camouflage carrying ak47s before. I kept thinking, this is an incredible story and I’ll be home soon to tell it. But then it slowly dawned on me that the guerillas’ promises of a quick release were not going to happen. The worst of it was the helplessness of not knowing if we would ever see our families again.
Our captors didn’t actually beat us but they were cruel and would hold guns to our heads threatening to shoot us. I’d do anything I could to ingratiate myself with them. You want them to like you – you don’t want to be the one who they shoot. My collaboration was the exact opposite to how the Israelis reacted – they would fight with the guerillas the whole time. Although I had moments of deep, dark despair, I always believed I’d get out. I also felt a lot better once I realised the ELN’s motives were political rather than financial. I latched on to that. If they were fighting for injustice then our ordeal was not totally futile.
When you are rescued from a hostage situation, you’re on an incredible high but five months after our release, when I started to write a book and relive every detail, it all came rushing back and I started having night terrors and feeling panicky during the day. I went from feeling totally invisible to suddenly feeling very fragile. I wondered what on earth was going on until luckily I met a psychologist, an expert in hostage taking, who told me I had a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As soon as she gave it a label, I realised I wasn’t going mad and started to move on.
A month or so after that I had dinner in London with the Colombian priest who had negotiated our release. At the end of dinner he said ‘there’s someone from the mountains who wants to get in touch with you.’ I knew it must be Antonio – the only one of our captors who had showed a spark of humanity. I was intrigued, and handed over my email address.
And so Antonio and I began to write back and forth. But in the emails he would never talk directly about the kidnapping and because I was so eager to get answers from him, eventually I had the idea of going back to Colombia to meet him and make a documentary. Three of the other hostages jumped at the opportunity to join me.
Accompanied by an army escort, we went back to the place where we’d first been taken hostage. We also met some of the women who we had supposedly been held in order to draw attention to the violation of their human rights. Most of their husbands had been killed and they told us they felt they were caught in a battle between the guerillas and the paramilitaries that they didn’t want to be involved in. They had nothing except for their stories and their stories were horrific.
As Reini and I were amassing more and more information with which to confront Antonio, we wondered how we would greet him – but when we finally met up with him we automatically hugged. In a way it was like meeting an old friend.
The interview started in the evening and lasted seven hours. We kept saying to him ‘you can go home now, we’ll finish in the morning,’ but he wanted to continue. The action of Antonio staying and inviting us to ask him any question we liked was as if he was saying ‘the roles are reversed now. You’re in charge.’ It was as if he was giving something back.
Then, quite un-prompted, he apologised. It came half way through an answer. He suddenly said ‘I want to say something – I want to say I’m sorry for what happened to you.’ He said there was no justification for what they’d done. He stumbled over the words. But for us his apology wasn’t the most important thing. We needed him to really understand what we’d been through and what our families had been through. As hostages we had always got the impression that the guards didn’t care how we felt – we were collateral damage , pawns in their war. Now, returning to Colombia, and hearing Antonio say sorry, and that he regretted what they’d done, was very healing indeed.