PARIS After nearly six years of captivity in the depths of the jungle, Ingrid Betancourt and her fellow rebel hostages "live like the dead", the Colombian-French politician said in a letter released on Saturday by supporters.
In a letter to her mother laced with love, sadness and pain, Betancourt describes her harsh living conditions in rebel camps in Colombia, the daily struggle to keep hope and the joy offered by family messages and gifts received via intermediaries.
The document was part of a haul of letters and grainy video seized from captured leftist guerrillas that showed for the first time since 2003 that Betancourt, three U.S. contract workers and a dozen kidnapped Colombians were still alive.
Betancourt, a former presidential candidate kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 2002, tells how she sleeps under a mosquito net in a hammock, washes in rivers and says she has tried to escape.
"All these years have been terrible, but I don't think I would still be alive without the commitment they have brought to all of us here, who live like the dead," she wrote.
In the pictures released by the Colombian authorities, Betancourt appeared thin, her features etched with fatigue.
"In all these years, I thought that as long as I was alive, as long as I continued to breathe, I must continue to hope.
"I don't have the same strength any more, it's very difficult for me to continue to hope, but I would like them to feel that what they have done for us has made the difference," she said of supporters. "We felt like human beings."
LIVING LIKE ANIMALS
The group holding Betancourt, known as FARC, have kept the captives constantly on the move to avoid detection by government forces. The FARC, Latin America's longest-running insurgency, wants to swap the captives for jailed comrades.
"At any moment they can order us to pack everything, and everyone has to sleep in any hollow, or stretch out anywhere like any animal," she wrote.
Betancourt, who said her hair was "falling out in clumps", said she was struggling physically and had lost her appetite, feeding instead on daily "miracles" like hearing relatives on her ageing, battered radio.
The Bible was her only luxury, the guerrillas often confiscated prized personal possessions and had refused repeated requests for reading material like an encyclopedia: "I want nothing, for in this jungle 'no' is the answer to everything."
Being the only female hostage was a concern, she said: "The presence of a woman among so many male hostages who have been in this situation for eight to 10 years is a problem."
The letter was part of evidence released a week after Bogota suspended efforts by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to broker a deal with FARC to free its hostages.
Negotiations over a hostage deal have been stymied by rebel demands for a demilitarized zone, which the government refuses.
In a phone call with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on Saturday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged the FARC to free the hostages and pledged to "redouble efforts" to end their ordeal, according to a statement from Sarkozy's office.
A FARC commander told Venezuela's state news agency ABN Sarkozy could play a "key role" in any future hostage deal.
In her letter, Betancourt urged daughter Melanie -- "a sort of better version of what I would have liked to have been" -- to study for a doctorate and said she was proud of her family.
"If I were to die today I would leave this life satisfied, thanking God for my children," she wrote.
(Additional reporting by Patrick Markey and Jaime Acosta in Bogota) (Reporting by Jon Boyle; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)