Loved ones freed in Colombia, family members rejoice

Relatives of former hostages Ingrid Betancourt and Marc Gonsalves had come to London to raise awareness of their detention by FARC rebels. Now, instead, they are being reunited. The families say they will continue to advocate for other hostages still being held.

Jo Rosano couldn't find the words. It's been more than five years since her son, Marc Gonsalves, was snatched from the wreck of a Cessna in the Colombian jungle by guerrillas belonging to the rebel group FARC. Five lonely, bewildering years that have left her battling depression but also find great relief in God.

But now that Mr. Gonsalves, a US contractor abducted in 2003, is finally free, Rosano isn't giving up. The job is only half done. There are hundreds of hostages still back there in the tropical interior, and life may be about to get even harder for them because of the audacity and insouciance of Wednesday's mission to free Gonsalves, Ingrid Betancourt, and 13 other hostages.

"We still have the other hostages to get out," says Rosano in an interview just hours after hearing news of her son's release. "They are human beings, too. I'm sure my son Marc would want that.

"It makes me angry," she adds. "These are human beings held against their will and they have committed no crime. Ingrid was campaigning, my son was doing his job, politicians were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Ingrid Betancourt's ex-husband, Fabrice Delloye, hinted too that the struggle is not yet over. "We are not only fighting for Ingrid but for all the hostages and for the path where Ingrid started her political life – against corruption and for more social justice in Colombia and against war," he said.

In a strange coincidence, Rosano, Mr. Delloye, and Betancourt's daughter, Melanie Delloye-Betancourt, had just descended on London for the first time to try to galvanize interest in the protracted hostage saga among the English-speaking press, which has been much more focused on Iraq and Afghanistan hostage crises. The relatives felt that greater coverage, particularly in the US press, would bring additional pressure to bear on President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, both of whom have been opposed to a negotiated solution.

In earlier interviews, none gave the slightest indication of expecting a breakthrough any time soon. Delloye expressed hope because the FARC have been on the back foot in recent months, losing a string of leaders to death and defection. But Melanie hinted at a wariness about getting too hopeful too soon. "We've learned to be careful [about good news]," she says. "We've had too many disappointments over the years."

Ironically, many relatives have been opposed to the kind of daring operation mounted on Wednesday ever since a French-inspired rescue attempt backfired in 2003. Delloye says he and his children were far more in favor of a negotiated settlement, probably involving prisoner swaps, to minimize risks to hostages.

For Rosano, the moment of finally hearing of Gonsalves' release was slightly surreal. "We had just checked in to a hotel and had started unpacking," she recalls. In came Hugo de Coulomme, an activist for a support group agitating for hostage release. "He says sit down I have to tell you some news. I said 'bad news' and he told me and I just didn't believe him.

"I just wanted to jump out of my skin and cry and cry. We didn't go to bed til 6. We were going around in circles. It was just incredible."

"I am going to see him tonight," she says, her voice catching. She was heading back to Texas, where Gonsalves and two other US defense contractors returned to late Wednesday. "Oh my gosh. I don't want to break his bones by hugging him so hard. I'm going to fatten him up with my Italian cooking."

If the ordeal is over for the released hostages, then the suspense is also over for the families who have campaigned tirelessly for years, often in the teeth of official indifference, for their liberation. Hostage relatives have constantly argued that this is the world's forgotten crisis, a misery that has extended for more than a decade.

"They're not the only hostages. We are hostages, too," Rosano said the day before news of the release became apparent. And while Betancourt's family have been able to enlist the muscular support of the French state, Rosano says she has often felt quite alone.

"Ingrid is lucky – she has France fighting for her. I have nobody in the US – it's me and me alone." She describes the agony of the hostage-mother, long days at home in her pajamas, trawling the Internet, working the phones; trips to Washington to lobby on Capitol Hill, three visits to Colombia to join protest marches and try to advance the cause.

"It's consumed my life. This is my life, trying to get the hostages out of there," she says. "I'm always on the phone I'm always on the Internet. I take every opportunity that I can to do whatever I can." "Other days I don't do anything. I don't have any energy.... People say it's been five years, the crying stops. I doesn't. I cry."

But not any more.

Betancourt's relatives, meanwhile, have also described how her tropical ordeal has torn their family apart. Her daughter, Melanie, was 16 when she was snatched in remote jungle territory in February 2002. While her peers took exams, fell in love ,and did all the foolish things teenagers do, Melanie had to grow up fast, summon up some inner strength, and help her father wage a tireless campaign. She managed to graduate from school and start a filmmaking course in the US, but often had to cut in to study time to keep the campaign alive.

"You just have to keep fighting," says Melanie, exuding the same dignity and determination that her French-Colombian mother displayed on her release. "These years have been hell for all of us. We've felt every possible feeling you have heard of."

Delloye describes the impact of the last six years. "For the children, all their adolescence was just wrecked by this. How can you do studies, make friends, live normally when you have a mother who is under permanent threat of death and you don't have news of her for four years?" he asks. His second wife left him, and slowly, his money began to run out as he devoted himself entirely to the affair. The children, he says, grew up fast.

"They became adults earlier. They learned how to protect themselves."

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