Colombia rebels' hostage recalls friendship with wild pig
Sgt. Jose Libardo Forero, who was freed by FARC rebels in April, says Josefo, a little wild pig he kept as a pet, helped keep him sane during his jungle ordeal.
Former prisoners of Colombian FARC rebels with pet pig after being freed. (Fernando Vergara / Associated Press / April 2, 2012)
The frustration finally drove him and a fellow prisoner, Sgt. Jorge Trujillo, to escape in late 2010. They spent a month on the lam, chained together like Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the film "The Defiant Ones," trying to reach an army outpost before the rebels found them.
In the end, they were betrayed by peasants who alerted the rebels, but Forero says he feels no bitterness. "That was FARC territory, so they had no choice. The guerrillas would have killed them if they hadn't given us up."
Unlike in Murcia's case, the FARC did not kill them for fleeing, for reasons Forero doesn't understand.
As the years passed, Forero became adept at inventing ways of keeping his mind off the life and family he was missing. He made dozens of key rings and pendants from the fangs of jungle cats and claws of giant armadillos that the FARC hunted for food.
But no amount of mind games could take his mind completely off the misery of living in the open jungle, with no protection against the dozens of kinds of insects with bites that cause malaria, which Forero contracted several times; severe headaches; and leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite transmitted by sand flies.
Forero became the prisoners' unofficial tailor, taking apart their ragged clothes and sewing them back together to learn the craft. He read the Bible four times through and found God. Over and over, he imagined building a three-story house, block by block, in his native Villavicencio, where he, his wife, Norma, and their children and parents could live.
He stuck to a rigid routine that left little time for "thinking and thinking." But depression would inevitably creep in. "We felt totally forgotten. The guerrillas didn't bother to tape 'proof of life' videos, so my wife went six years with no news of me."
But at least he had Josefo. Although the wild pigs, known as sainos, can be vicious and aggressive in herds, Josefo was Forero's pet and the prisoners' mascot for about six months. One of the rescue operation's enduring images was that of Josefo trotting after Forero across the tarmac of Villavicencio airport after his release.
The animal learned all sorts of tricks, like fetching bars of soap from the guerrilla side of the compound, responding to voice commands and becoming a habitual coffee drinker. "He gnashed his teeth or nudged me with his snout when he wanted coffee," Forero said.
At least until Forero finishes his counseling, Josefo now lives on the farm of Alan Jara, a onetime governor and FARC hostage who taught Forero English and Russian in captivity.
After years of rumors of impending freedom, Forero didn't get his hopes up much when his captors told him in October that he soon would be released.
"We believed it only when we saw the helicopters coming to get us," Forero said of the April 2 rescue led by Brazilian pilots and Red Cross officials.
Forero talked about his adjustment to modern life — and coming to grips with what he missed while in captivity.
"I walked from a totally savage world into a new century, " Forero said. "What's changed? There are a lot more cars on the streets and electronic gadgets I have to learn to use."
Apart from a promotion in rank, a computer and medical treatment, Forero said he hasn't received any special financial compensation from the government for his years as a prisoner. He said his goal now is to go abroad, perhaps as a military attache in a foreign embassy.
After all he's been through, is he bitter? He says no, although flashes of rancor surface when the subject turns, of all things, to soccer and the Bogota team that during his years of torment never succeeded in winning a championship.
"In the end, I couldn't waste my time feeling sorry for those losers," he said, his voice suddenly rising. "I only cared about winners in the jungle. Otherwise I just became more desperate."
No one owes him anything for his lost years, he said. It is he who owes his wife, for waiting for him, for educating his children on her own and "bringing them up as responsible persons."
"You learn in captivity you can take anything difficult and turn it into something positive. Letting rancor build up, you become bitter and intolerant," Forero said. "I learned from God I have to do more for my family. I used to drink too much and was unfaithful to my wife.
"Now, I'm looking for the road to responsibility."
Kraul is a special correspondent.