The Colombian Politician With An Incredible Back Story

Feb 25, 2014
Originally published on February 25, 2014 9:06 pm

Politicians on the campaign trail love to talk about their personal stories and they often mention their kids as well. It can be pretty routine stuff, unless you happen to be Clara Rojas, a candidate for Congress in Colombia's elections next month.

Rojas, a lawyer, was a central figure in one of the most dramatic episodes of Colombia's long guerrilla war. In 2002, she was managing the presidential campaign of Ingrid Betancourt when both women were kidnapped by Marxist rebels.

Betancourt, a dual French-Colombian citizen, made headlines when she was rescued in an army raid in 2008, after six years in captivity. But Rojas, who is now jumping back into Colombian politics, has an even more remarkable tale.

When the FARC rebels kidnapped Rojas, she was 38 and feared she would be held hostage for years and lose the chance to become a mother. So, Rojas started a consensual relationship with one of her rebel guards and became pregnant.

It was a controversial decision. Some fellow hostages in jungle prison camps accused Rojas of sleeping with the enemy. She had no access to decent medical care. Her son was delivered via Cesarean section performed by rebels who sterilized their scalpels over a candle. Rojas lost so much blood she nearly died.

"Today, when I look back on that episode, I'm amazed that I had the strength to go through it all," Rojas said.

Her Son Is Taken Away

But her ordeal wasn't over. Her son, Emmanuel, cried so much that the rebels feared he would give away their location to the Colombian army. So, when Emmanuel was 8 months old, the rebels took him from Rojas and ordered a peasant farmer to raise the boy.

The farmer defied the guerrillas and turned Emmanuel over to the Colombian government's child welfare agency. When Rojas was finally freed in 2008, after nearly six years in captivity, she was reunited with Emmanuel, whom she hadn't seen for three years.

If it sounds like the stuff of movies, it is. Operation E, a Spanish-made film about Rojas and her son was released last year.

After she was freed, Rojas became director of Free Country, a Bogota organization that works with the relatives of hostages. And unlike Betancourt, who now lives abroad, Rojas is diving back into Colombian politics, a move she said is helping her leave the past behind.

"When people meet me, they think they're meeting a victim," Rojas said. "But I'm no longer a victim. If you always consider yourself a victim, you will never take responsibility for your life."

A Dangerous Occupation

Colombian politics remains a dangerous business, with guerrillas and criminal gangs often targeting elected officials, said Alejandra Barrios, who directs an independent election monitoring group in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

Since 2011, Barrios says 20 government officials have been assassinated and three have been kidnapped. Given the risk, she considers Rojas a hero for getting back in the political arena.

So does Iojeved Kabzir, a Colombian businesswoman whose sister was kidnapped by guerrillas in 2001.

Kabzir said it's important to have people like Rojas in Congress because they understand the point of view of war victims.

If she wins a spot in Congress, Rojas says she will push the guerrillas to provide a full accounting of the thousands of people they are accused of kidnapping, many of whom are presumed dead. But if she loses, Rojas says – switching to English – that's OK, too.

"I feel very good," she said. "I'm happy with my little son. I'm happy with the kind of life that I have today. I understand that this is better than the problems in the jungle."

Besides politics, Rojas is writing books, giving motivational speeches, and spending time with Emmanual, who is now 10.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

It's one of the most famous episodes of Colombia's 50-year guerrilla war. In 2002, Colombian lawyer Clara Rojas was managing the presidential campaign of Ingrid Betancourt when the two women were kidnapped by Marxist rebels. Betancourt, a French-Colombian dual citizen, made headlines when she was rescued by security forces six and a half years later. But what happened to Rojas, who is now jumping back into Colombian politics, was even more dramatic.

Reporter John Otis explains why.

CLARA ROJAS: (Foreign language spoken)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Clara Rojas stumps for votes ahead of next month's congressional elections. But for most Colombians she needs no introduction.

ROJAS: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: When FARC rebels kidnapped Rojas, she was 38. She feared she would be held hostage for years and lose the chance to become a mother. So, Rojas started a consensual relationship with one of her rebel guards and became pregnant. It was a controversial decision.

Some of her fellow hostages in jungle prison camps accused Rojas of sleeping with the enemy. She had no access to decent medical care. Her baby was finally delivered via Caesarian section, performed by rebels who sterilized their scalpels over a candle. Rojas lost so much blood, she nearly died.

ROJAS: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Today, when I look back on that episode, I'm amazed that I had the strength to go through it all, Rojas says.

But her ordeal wasn't over. Her son, named Emmanuel, cried so much that the rebels feared he would give away their location to the Colombian army. So, when the Emmanuel was eight months old, the rebels took him away from Rojas and ordered a peasant farmer to raise the boy. Rojas would not see her son for another three years.

But the farmer defied the guerrillas by turning Emmanuel over to the Colombian government's child welfare agency. After nearly six years in captivity, Rojas was finally freed in 2008 and reunited with Emmanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OPERATION E")

OTIS: If it sounds like the stuff of movies, it is. "Operation E," a Spanish-made film about Rojas and her son was released last year.

After she was freed, Rojas became director of Free Country, a Bogota organization that counsels the relatives of hostages. Rojas is diving back into Colombian politics, which she says is helping her leave the past behind.

ROJAS: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: When people meet me, they think they're meeting a victim, Rojas says. But I'm no longer a victim. If you always consider yourself a victim, you will never take responsibility for your life.

ROJAS: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: But politics remains a dangerous occupation with guerrillas and criminal gangs often targeting elected officials, says Alejandra Barrios who directs an independent election monitoring group in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

ALEJANDRA BARRIOS: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Since 2011, Barrios says 20 government officials have been assassinated and three have been kidnapped. Given the risk, she considers Rojas a hero for getting back in the political arena.

IOJEVED KABZIR: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: So does Iojeved Kabzir, a Colombian businesswoman whose sister was kidnapped by guerrillas in 2001.

KABZIR: (Foreign language spoken)

OTIS: Kabzir says it's important to have people like Rojas in Congress, because they understand the point of view of war victims.

If she wins a spot in Congress, Rojas says she will push the guerrillas to provide a full accounting of the thousands of people they are accused of kidnapping, many of whom are presumed dead. But if she loses, Rojas says - switching to English - that's OK too.

ROJAS: Oh, I feel very good, honest. I'm happy with my little son. I'm happy with the kind of life that I have today, right? I understand that this is better than the...

(LAUGHTER)

ROJAS: ...problems in the jungle, right?

OTIS: Besides politics, Rojas is writing books, giving motivational speeches, and spending time with Emmanual, who she says is now a healthy 10-year-old.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.