Some of these captives had been gone for 14 years, but as anxious as they must have been to return, they walked very slowly on the airport runway at Villavicencio. It seemed to me that they were carrying the weight of so many years of the horror they lived, hiking through the thick Colombian jungle, persecuted by the fear of being killed by their captors or by the bombing of the armed forces.
They landed exhausted. In their glances it seemed they were living a dream – one in which they returned to embrace their families, showing them that they were all still alive. Theirs was not an ending like some of their fellow captives, who were killed when the Army tried to free them. With their faces clearly aged, they returned with few possessions. Some of them brought jungle animals as pets. Their families awaited them in a private room of the airport because the government had decided not to show their first reunion to the press. We were upset, to say the least.
When Ingrid Betancourt and the 14 hostages were freed in Operation Checkmate, the government brought them to Bogota in a media show. This time the hostages were simple soldiers and policemen and the only thing they wanted to do was hug their children who had since grown into adults, and their spouses and parents affected by the years of suffering.
We awaited in the dense atmosphere of high heat and humidity on the airport tarmac as the choppers arrived and crews pushed the staircases into position. We were all wondering how the arrival of the 10 hostages would play out, imagining that their families would break the government’s security fence and rush to their missing loved ones, making this show their own and not another one belonging to the FARC.
As always, we were crammed into a rope corral after a very long wait for these last hostages to be released. It was a long day full of emotions, and of intense rain in the morning that forced a delay in the military helicopter from Brazil, the country that had mediated the release. Some journalists nodded off while others chatted, but we could feel the tension when the afternoon sun appeared clearly on its way to setting.
We began to take position with TV presenters holding photos of the hostages to be able to identify them as they disembarked from the helicopters. They nervously practiced what would be their live narrations. Photographers checked and re-checked their camera settings, adjusting their ASA as the sun dropped and the sky darkened. When at last a black spot appeared on the horizon, and the arrival was imminent, chaos broke out.
The TV channels began their live transmission, and the chatting turned into loud, nervous voices as the chopper landed. The former hostages took a while to appear, but when they did they were decorated with medals as heroes for being the longest-surviving hostages of all.
Right around sunset when these poor men appeared, we did take our photos but were not immune from the emotion. Even my eyes teared up as I realized that at last they would return to their families, the families that didn’t break the security barrier and rush out into the arms of their missing relatives as we had hoped. That first desperate hug surely happened somewhere, but we only recorded it in our imaginations.