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Freed Colombian hostages describe captives in chains, childbirth in the jungle

CARACAS, Venezuela - Freed hostage Clara Rojas wore a photograph of her 3-year-old son around her neck as she described his birth and upbringing among Colombian rebels in jungle camps.

CARACAS, Venezuela - Freed hostage Clara Rojas wore a photograph of her 3-year-old son around her neck as she described his birth and upbringing among Colombian rebels in jungle camps.

A day after Rojas was released along with another Colombian hostage, she said her main priority is being reunited with her son Emmanuel, who was fathered by one of the guerrillas and separated from her at 8 months old. The boy has been living in a foster home in Bogota.

"Very soon I will meet him and little by little we'll start sharing what for us is a rebirth," Rojas told reporters Friday night in Caracas, where she and Consuelo Gonzalez met their families and thanked Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for engineering their release.

In their accounts of some six years in captivity, Rojas and Gonzalez described long treks through the forest, prisoners in chains and tense moments when rebels told captives to be silent for fear of nearby troops.

Rojas, an aide to former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who is also being held hostage, said she knows little about the rebel fighter who fathered her son and will raise the boy on her own.

"I don't have any information about the boy's dad. What's more, I don't have any idea if he even knows he's the boy's father," Rojas said. "The information I have is that he could even have died. I don't have any confirmation."

Born in a dangerous, kitchen-knife cesarian delivery in the jungle, Emmanuel had a broken arm sustained during the birth when he was pulled out by a rebel nurse, Rojas said. The guerrillas helped carry the infant through the jungles and, at one point, across a wide river, she said.

When the boy was 8 months old, Rojas said she gave the rebels permission to take him away for two weeks to receive treatment for leishmaniasis, a parasite malady common in the jungle.

The next time Rojas received news of her son was two weeks ago, while listening to a radio broadcast of a New Year's Eve speech by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who asserted the child was no longer with Rojas' captors: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

DNA tests confirmed the boy had been living in a Bogota foster home for more than two years under a different name.

Elvira Forero, head of Colombia's child welfare agency, said she spoke with Rojas and assured her authorities are ready to hand over Emmanuel "whenever she decides she's ready." Rojas said she will return to Bogota in the coming days.

Rojas said one of the few sources of comfort for the captives was listening to the radio in their encampments. She recalled weeping with joy one year at Christmas when she heard her brother wish her the best on a special program for hostages' relatives.

Gonzalez, a former congresswoman, described in an interview with Colombia's Caracol Radio how some of her fellow hostages would sleep, bathe and wash their clothes while chained by the neck.

She said her daily routine of sleeping on the jungle floor and surviving on rice and beans was interrupted occasionally by aerial raids.

"When bombs are falling all around you, it's when you really understand the horror of war," she said.

Both Rojas and Gonzalez said their captors often said little to them - at best a few encouraging words at times.

Rojas was kidnapped in February 2002 along with Betancourt, who was campaigning for the presidency.

Rojas said the rebels put her and Betancourt in chains after they tried to escape once, but later released them. The two were separated three years ago, and Rojas has not seen Betancourt since.

"I don't really know in what situation she's in. I'm worried about her health," Rojas said. "It hurts me deeply. ... I hope she is free soon."

In a video released in November, Betancourt appeared pale and haggard - a dramatic change for a politician who once was a fitness buff.

Rojas said she was encouraged by France's pressure on behalf of Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, and other captives.

Gonzalez said she plans to dedicate herself to working for the release of the remaining hostages.

Chavez, meanwhile, took the side of the leftist rebels in a provocative speech, calling the guerrillas "true armies" and asking the international community to stop classifying them as terrorists in order to open a path to peace.

Colombia's U.S.-allied government, which has made eradicating the rebels a top priority, reacted with outrage. Interior Minister Carlos Holguin said Colombia "cannot accept a request of this sort."

Asked if she sees the FARC as a terrorist group, Rojas did not answer directly but called it "a criminal organization," condemning its kidnappings as "a total violation of human dignity" and saying some captive police and soldiers are kept in chains at all times.

Gonzalez said she was never put in chains but that the entire experience was "a sort of torture."

 
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