A radio lifeline in Colombia

The radio signal was weak but clear, and for Jairo Martnez, kidnapped by leftist rebels and held prisoner deep in the Orinoco jungle, the faint sound of his wife's voice was a lifesaver.

"Sometimes I just wanted to give in. But when I heard her speak, it gave me the strength to keep going. It made me want to stay alive," says Mr. Martnez (not his real name).

In a country that last year saw an average of eight abductions a day, radio broadcasting messages of hope to the victims have become a vital link for families torn apart by kidnapping.

Martnez, the owner of an electrical goods company, was snatched last March as he headed home from his Bogot office. Forced from his car at gunpoint, he was driven through the night and handed over by his abductors to a squad of uniformed guerrillas.

For 17 days, the rebels frog-marched him through the Andean foothills to a make-shift jungle camp, where Martnez was held prisoner with 10 other victims, all waiting for their families to settle on a ransom. The hostages were each issued a change of clothes and a toothbrush. Between them, they shared one small battery-powered transistor radio.

Three days after he arrived, Martnez heard his wife's first message. "I can't describe how I felt," he says. "I cried, but I don't know if it was with joy or sorrow. At that moment, you suffer terribly, but it also fortifies you incredibly."

In 1999, Colombian authorities reported more than 2,900 abductions, mostly the work of the left-wing guerrillas and their far-right paramilitary enemies. Although they claim a political agenda, the armed factions increasingly are turning to kidnapping and extortion to finance their campaigns.

The explosion in kidnappings has been reflected by a proliferation of local and national radio shows that broadcast to the victims. The messages mix words of encouragement with news from home, jokes, poems, and even the latest soccer results

"Any little piece of news is a breath of life for the kidnap victim," says Libardo Bedoya, who presents a nightly show on Bogot's Radio Recuerdos. "Heartbreak Hour" churns out a steady stream of Mexican cowboy songs and syrupy ballads, interspersed with messages from throughout Colombia.

"Don't lose hope. We'll be together again soon. Your son is nearly walking now, and I show him your photo every day. I'll wait for you forever," went Mireida's message to her husband, Jos, kidnapped by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Every night the switchboards are jammed, says regular caller Adela Afanador, whose son Edgar, an infantryman in the Colombian Army, was captured during a guerrilla raid in August 1998.

"I get blisters dialing that number," she says, "but it's such a relief to know that he can hear me when I do get through."

Says psychologist Olga Luca Gmez: "The hostage isn't the only victim in a kidnapping. Sometimes their family suffers a much more violent psychological shock, because they have no way of knowing what has happened to their loved one," says Ms. Gmez, a member of the Pais Libre organization, which campaigns against abductions.

For the families, a weekly message can help overcome a sense of helplessness. It's a way of fighting against terror, uncertainty, and the manipulation of the kidnap gangs.

"The kidnappers use fear and guilt to extort the payment. The radio messages are a way of reclaiming solidarity with the victim," says Gmez.

In the crowded control room of a downtown radio studio, dozens of relatives await their turn to record a message for Pas Libre's own weekly show, broadcast late at night on the state radio network.

Men and women from all walks of life scribble notes for their messages, and exchange news on each case. Over the months, many form close friendships, and look forward to the weekly sessions as an impromptu support group meeting.

"Whenever someone is released, we all share the joy," says Patricia de Cobo, whose husband was abducted in May 1999. "In the end, we're all in the same boat. We're all waiting for them to come home."

Meanwhile, in the tedium of captivity, the radio shows are a rare source of joy. In his jungle prison, says Martnez, there were no books, no newspapers, and nothing to mark the passing months. "Every day was very long and very boring. Christmas Day, New Year's Eve - they were all the same." The only relief, he says, came twice a week, when two national radio shows aimed at kidnap victims are aired.

"Every Wednesday and Saturday, we were glued to the radio. Batteries were very scarce, so we saved them just to listen to the messages. Those messages were like gas for a car, or electricity for the TV. It was our food, what kept us alive," says Martnez, who was eventually released after 290 days.

"If you start believing that you have been forgotten, you'll fall to pieces. These programs let the victim know that their family is fighting for their freedom," explains Gmez, the psychologist, who says that the radio broadcasts still have not fulfilled their potential.

"We should be reaching out to everybody, including the kidnappers. We have to build a culture where kidnapping is simply unacceptable," she insists.

Back in the studio at Radio Recuerdos, Mr. Bedoya cues another song. "Sad Memories" is a typically sentimental Mexican ranchera tune, but for the listeners its words have a special resonance:

"Time goes by, but I can never forget you. Wherever you are, I hope you're listening to this song. And when you hear these words, I hope you remember me as I remember you."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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