Truth in the Crossfire
In a brutal attack, ‘my truth … was dealt a mortal wound.’
Jineth Bedoya Lima, a reporter with El Espectador in Bogotá, was kidnapped and tortured by paramilitary forces in Colombia in 2000. In the Spring 2001 issue of Nieman Reports, she wrote about this experience as part of a collection of stories entitled "Colombia: The War Against Journalists," and that article is reprinted here.
For many, working as a journalist in Colombia is exciting. It's like experiencing the magical and unreal of what the world has to offer in the 21st century. But for those of us who, in addition to working in Colombia, live in Colombia and for Colombia, it is an exhausting workday in which day by day one gives up slices of life, and one experiences the spirit of death in each task. This is the reality left by the Colombian armed conflict: an undeclared civil war that, in the course of 50 years, has left thousands of persons killed, displaced, disappeared and exiled.
The confrontation, which includes, in addition to the political interests of the guerrillas, the far right-wing groups, the drug traffickers, the hand of the state veiled in impunity, places the press — and therefore the truth of what is happening in Colombia — in the crossfire. We are caught in a thick web that subjects its victim to awaiting the slow approach of any of its victimizers. As a result, we, journalists who have sought to scrutinize these dark webs of interests, have ourselves become their targets.
On May 25 of last year , when I still thought truth prevailed over bad intentions and that it was the best protective shield for a reporter in Colombia, three armed men, who identified themselves as members of the paramilitary forces under the command of Carlos Castaño, kidnapped, tortured and assaulted me in the worst possible way. That day, my truth was caught in the middle of the crossfire and was dealt a mortal wound.
Today, eight months after that terrible episode, I can't stop thinking so much of my own personal drama, but of the drama of Colombia, which also has a mortal wound in its truth. It is the sum of hundreds of atrocities: There have been towns razed by the lack of conscience of the guerrillas; peasants affronted by the barbaric acts of the paramilitary groups; children wounded by mines sown by terrorists; ideologues, professors and trade unionists subjugated by the black glove of power. And there is a latent foreign threat silently closing in with its winds of war.
It's Colombia. It's a country that has seen in recent years how freedom of the press has been at these difficult crossroads. But journalists here have a great responsibility not to grow weak in the face of the cynicism of its rulers and the muteness of its authorities. And in the face of the rulers and authorities, journalists have also waged bloody battles that put us at a disadvantage since we are weaker, and that weakness places us in the sights of the guns. Yet we still have the indissoluble power of the truth, the same truth that is mortally wounded as it lies surrounded by politicians, police, soldiers and criminals. It is the same truth that eight months after I became disabused of many illusions, also enables me to continue living and writing a few lines. This same truth has spurred on the journalist in me, but that nonetheless has not been able to encourage the woman in me. It is merely the reflection of a country and the drama of many who, perhaps, don't have the good fortune to be able to tell their feelings to someone else, as I can now.
Two years later, Bedoya Lima was kidnapped a second time. What follows are excerpts about this kidnapping from "Fifteen Years of Courage," a publication written by Peggy Simpson for the International Women's Media Foundation. Simpson, a 1979 Nieman Fellow, is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.
Bedoya was kidnapped again in early August 2003 by a FARC guerrilla who controlled the hamlet of Puerto Alvira and its 1,100 residents. FARC got a foothold in that region in 1996 and brought in coca crops.... Bedoya had gone to Puerto Alvira to tell the story of how it had been taken over by guerrillas in 2002 and held for more than a year. Some 70 families had disappeared in the FARC takeover and the entire village had been forced into cocaine production.
Bedoya and a photographer cleared the military checkpoint for the region but, after a six-hour boat trip, they had a rude shock when they arrived at the hamlet. "The guerrilla man in charge told us we had no business being there ... got really incensed, ordered our kidnapping," said Bedoya."We were stripped of our cameras and our clothing and locked up in a house." FARC guerrilla's told the villagers not to feed them or allow them to contact anyone, and Lima was told she and the photographer were going to be killed. After six days of captivity, during which time a villager defied the order not to feed them, a FARC commander freed them, saying their imprisonment was all a mistake and against FARC policy. He also offered to reimburse the two hostages for loss of money, cameras and other equipment. "We didn't accept his apologies," said Bedoya. "I said I would never accept help from the guerrillas." ...
As traumatizing as the second kidnapping was for her, Bedoya resists labeling herself "courageous." She observes that "Courage is something that is very subjective. We can be courageous in certain circumstances and become real cowards in others. This is my life. I love what I do. I go to the jungle on many trips to cover military opportunities. I know there is a chance of not coming back. There are fears. These are not personal fears, but more about my family and things that depend on me. And there are millions who read my work. This is my contribution to society."
Journalists remain as targets of the warring factions in Colombia, and Bedoya is trying to change that situation. "Armed groups believe that the press is part of the conflict, that reporters work for bourgeoisie media groups, who have the power and money in Colombia," said Bedoya, who is involved in Bogotá with what she describes as a "circle of journalists." She founded the group to try to educate the public, the government, the guerrillas, and the paramilitary warring forces about the role of an independent media. ...
Even though she admits "some days are still very difficult, when I remember what happened to me," Bedoya explained that the Courage in Journalism Award [presented to her in 2001 by the International Women's Media Foundation] gave her more courage to continue reporting. Now in her early 30's, her role models are older Colombian journalists. "They take their work very seriously, both men and women. ... Those who died became sources of inspiration. They gave their lives for the sake of information."