HOSTAGE! PART ONE
The exclusive first-person
account of Bruce Olson's nine month captivity.
When Bruce Olson was
19, he bought a one-way ticket to South America.
He traveled into the
uncharted jungles of northeast Colombia. There, 28 years ago, he found
the Motilones Bari, a fierce, primitive Indian tribe.
The Motilones called
him "Bruchko " because that is how they pronounced his name. Though Olson
had no official sponsorship from a missions board or organization, in the
ensuring years, he established medical clinics and schools for the tribe.
He has translated Scriptures into their language. And he has led many of
them in accepting Christ as their Savior.
The volatile country
of Colombia has long been plagued with escalating problems, including revolutionary
uprisings and plundering by drug barons. In the midst of the danger, the
turmoil and the cocaine trafficking, Olson has quietly and effectively
won the love and respect of the Motilones, and in fact, the entire nation.
In his book, titled Bruchko, Olson tells the story of his early
years of ministry in Colombia.
Olson lived and worked
with the Motilones until October 1988 when the shocking news came: He had
been captured by a band of guerrilla terrorists intent on controlling Motilone
territory as part of their strategy for revolution. He would face torture
and death threats. In an exclusive Charisma story, Olson tells in
his own words the riveting account of his nine months in captivity."
The hot sun beat down upon
the equatorial jungles of northeastern Colombia known as "Motilandia."
It was a steamy, 100-degree October morning. Exotic birds screeched,
monkeys screamed and a chorus of katydids assaulted my ears as I headed
toward the dugout canoe that waited on the bank of the Rio de Oro to carry
me and 15 Motilone Indian companions down-river from Iquiacarora to Saphadana,
the site of a Motilone food cooperative. I walked slowly, enjoying
the company of the Indians and savoring the sounds; of chattering jungle
creatures in the lush greenery surrounding us. I was never in a hurry
to leave Iquiacarora.
As I climbed into the
canoe, I glanced at Kaymiyokba, one of the Motilone leaders who had become
my close friend over the 28 years I'd lived and worked among his people.
He grinned, starting up the outboard motor while the other Indians took
their seats. His warm smile filled me with a deep sense of satisfaction
and belonging. We were family, he and I. The people crowded
around me were my brothers and sisters. I was truly at home and exactly
where I belonged on planet earth. The thought filed me with a mixture
of quiet contentment and nostalgia.
How could I have imagined,
when I first walked into the jungles of Motilandia in 1961, all that God
intended to do here? How was it possible at I had left my family
and friends in Minnesota at the age of 19 to go on a journey that would
lead to such an exotic place, and to these amazing, legendary people a
--people so isolated and hostile that no white man had survived contact
with them in 400 years of recorded history until I walked into their territory?
When I'd boarded the
plane for South America with nothing but a one-way ticket and a few dollars
in my pocket, not knowing one word of Spanish, nearly everyone had thought
I was crazy --or just plain foolish. But I had been unable to resist the
subtle, persistent longing that had drawn me here, the growing love that
God had put in my heart for the indigenous tribal people of this continent,
the quiet voice inside that told me I would never be happy, never have
a moment's peace, until I obeyed His call. No, I could not have imagined
where that call would take me; I could not have imagined that today my
heart and my life would be deeply rooted in these people and in this vast,
Nor could I have imagined
that this day, October 24, 1988, would be a day unlike any other that I
had spent in these jungles, that it would be the first day of a 9-month
ordeal that would leave me -- and indeed, a whole nation -- profoundly
It was a good day for
travel. The rainy season was upon us, but the sun had broken through
and I was glad to see it, even though it would turn the jungles into a
giant steam bath. I'd been feeling another malaria attack coming
on, and the intense, sweltering heat of our down-river journey just might
sweat it out of me -- or at least keep my teeth from chattering for a while.
As Kaymiyokba steered
the boat, I scanned the shorelines on both the Colombian and Venezuelan
sides of the river, watching for any guerrillas who might be lurking there.
The four major guerrilla organizations in Colombia had operated in adjacent
territories for nearly 12 years, gradually controlling more and more of
the area surrounding Motilandia. Guerrilla strategists were avid
students of revolution in other parts of the world; the Sandinistas' failure
to occupy and control Mosquito Indian tribal lands in Nicaragua had been
a serious error, and Colombia's guerrilla strategists had learned from
their mistake. My life had been threatened repeatedly because Colombian
revolutionaries saw me as the key to controlling the vast Colombia-Venezuela
border territory belonging to the Motilones. I was, in their eyes,
so influential among the Motilones and other neighboring tribes that unless
I could be convinced to join their revolutionary movement and bring the
Indians into their cause, the Indians would be a constant thorn in their
flesh. Since I had resisted their previous attempts to recruit me, I'd
been marked for elimination. With me out of the picture, the guerrillas
theorized, the Indians would soon yield to their demands. They would
then have free rein in northeast Colombia -- and the success of their revolution
would be assured.
All of this had made
me cautious in my journeys through areas like Saphadana, where the guerrillas
seemed to be making their presence known with increasing boldness.
I was not fearful for myself so much as I was fearful of the bloodshed
that might result among the Indians if I were killed. The guerrillas
were capable of anything. I had known many of them over the years,
including some of their leaders -- a surprising number of whom were former
pastors, priests, and students from mission schools in the area.
I had even tried to convince a few to redirect their idealism toward positive,
humanitarian social service goals instead of revolution, but without much
success. These were dedicated terrorists who had learned to rationalize
their kidnappings, executions, bombings and other crimes by claiming they
served a higher cause: "The people's revolution."
Now, as we journeyed
down-stream, I felt tense. Everyone else seemed in good spirits,
so I tried to relax. After an hour and a half, I caught a glimpse
of the shoreline at Saphadana, immediately noticing two guerrillas standing
in a clearing a short distance from the boat dock. They carried rifles
and machine guns, and they were watching us intently.
Victor, the Motilone
sitting next to me, leaned over and whispered, "The guerrillas are looking
at us." He exchanged nervous glances with Kaymiyokba.
I avoided looking in
the guerrillas' direction. While Kaymiyokba docked the canoe I deliberately
turned my back on the guerrillas as they walked toward us. I was
about to climb out of the canoe when, without warning, a spray of machine-gun
fire pelted the water around us.
"Out of the canoe!"
one of the guerrillas shouted. They were still about 30 yards away.
We climbed out, and the Indians started toward the guerrillas, obviously
intending to attack them with their bare hands. But one of the guerrillas
fired another volley in our direction, this time slamming into the motor
and ripping a gaping hole in the side of the canoe. "Lie down with
your faces to the ground!" he ordered.
to walk toward the guerrillas. I could see that he was struggling
to control his anger. "Let's discuss this," he said in Spanish.
"Let's not start something we'll all regret..."
"There's nothing to
discuss!" the guerrilla shouted, spraying the dock area as punctuation.
One of his bullets grazed Kaymiyokba's forehead. The Motilone stood
"Bruce Olson is taken
captive by the Camilist Union-National Liberation Army!" the guerrilla
shouted, motioning at me to step toward him. This guerrilla group,
commonly known as the ELN, was the only one of the four largest national
revolutionary organizations that had not agreed to an informal truce with
the Colombian government after being offered the opportunity to put their
agenda before the people in free elections.
I assessed our situation,
realizing I had only a few seconds to make a decision. There was
no way we could successfully resist these men in physical combat; I could
safely assume there were more armed guerrillas hiding in the trees, and
we had no weapons whatsoever, not even Motilone bows and arrows.
I never carried arms, and on this trip I hadn't even brought along a pocket
knife -- not that it would have been any help against military weapons.
I quickly reviewed
other possible options. I could jump in the river and swim underwater
to avoid the guerrillas' bullets, and probably escape downstream.
I knew the area very well; the guerrillas did not, so my chances would
have been good. But that would have left the Motilones at their mercy,
so I couldn't risk it. And it would only put off this moment to another
time, another place.
As the guerrillas trained
their guns on me, I decided that the moment had come to face the enemy.
But I would try to do it on my terms, in a way that would catch the guerrillas
off guard and give the Motilones their best chance to escape unharmed.
I picked up the backpack
I'd dropped when the gunfire had started and told Kaymiyokba in Motilone,
Don't follow me! Don't do anything!"
Then I spoke to the
guerrillas: "I'm Olson," I said. "I'm the one you want. Leave
the Motilones alone." I turned and began to walk away from both the
guerrillas and the Indians.
By the time I'd walked
a few yards, about two dozen more guerrillas materialized out of the jungles.
I ignored them and kept walking, hoping to put as much distance as I could
between them and the Indians. Then someone shouted, "Stop! Stop or we'll
I kept walking faster
and faster, shouting at them over my shoulder, "You came to capture Olson.
You can have me, but you'll have to come and get me! "
The guerrillas started
after me and I began to walk as quickly as possible without actually running.
Finally, when we were about 500 yards from the Motilones and all the guerrillas
had abandoned the Indians to chase me, two more guerrillas suddenly appeared
in front of me. Using their weapons, they knocked me to the ground
and roughly forced my face into the wet earth. One of them put his gun
to my head.
So this is how I'll
die, I thought. A bullet through the brain. I was surprised
that I felt rather calm.
As I waited for the
trigger to be pulled, the other guerrillas arrived, all of them very nervous
and excited. "He's very dangerous! Careful!" someone shouted.
"Don't take any chances! Don't let him move!" Everyone talked
at once, breathing hard, working fast. My hands were yanked behind
me and bound tightly with a nylon rope. This is amazing, I thought.
Who would believe this? They're afraid of me!
I was dragged to my
feet and about 30 guerrillas closed ranks around me, ordering me to walk.
I was relieved to find that we were headed away from the Motilones, who
continued to watch from a distance, obeying my order to do nothing. I moved
as quickly as possible, praying that they would not decide at the last
moment to put up a fight. They didn't.
The guerrillas pushed
me steadily through the wet, tortuous jungles, first on foot, then by canoe,
and finally on foot again, for three days and nights until we arrived at
a location they'd decided would make a relatively safe first camp.
I knew exactly where we were most of the time; it was territory I'd traveled
many times during my 28 years in the region. I was thankful that
if I had to be kidnapped, it would be here, on home turf. It would
have been truly horrible, I thought, to be captured in a city, taken to
a strange, unfamiliar place, and locked in a small room. At least here, in the high Catatumbo, I was in the place I loved more
than any other spot on earth, the place I knew God wanted me to be.
If I had to die, this
was where I wanted to do it. I wouldn't have a single regret. It was ironic: Here I was, in the hands of ruthless terrorists who
were probably going to execute me shortly, and I was feeling quite pleased
and comfortable with the situation because I knew -- beyond all doubt --
that I was exactly where I belonged at that moment. This certainty
would stay with me throughout the ordeal to come.
In all of the 12 camps
I lived in during the nine months of my captivity, I would be guarded 24
hours a day by at least two heavily-armed men. The guards were usually
changed every hour, so there was no possibility that one might fall asleep
or become too relaxed in my presence. Much of the time my hands were
kept bound behind my back, even when I was very ill and in extreme pain.
The rains were relentless
and demoralizing. A crude makeshift shelter was constructed over
my hammock in the first camp, but it offered virtually no protection from
the elements. I was always soaking wet, even when the rain let up
for a few hours, as it did only occasionally. It was so humid, even
on sunny days, that shoes and clothes never could dry.
During the two weeks
I spent in the first camp, I tried to remain quiet and spend as much time
as possible resting to give my body a chance to recover from the malaria.
But the attack continued and then, just as I thought I was recovering,
came back again, probably as a result of the conditions I was living in.
I knew the malaria wouldn't kill me, but the disease has a way, sometimes,
of making you almost wish it would. Yet it wasn't unbearable.
I had learned years before, when I had injuries and illnesses in the jungles,
to separate myself from the physical discomfort. When you're miles
from help and your arm or leg is dislocated on a jungle trail, you can't
sit down and agonize over it. You have to keep going. I'd say to
myself in such moments, "I'm in pain, yes, but this pain only exists in
my body. I am not my body. My mind and spirit are above this,
not part of it." This technique worked for me, and I would use it
to get through some of the worst experiences of my captivity.
It may seem bizarre
to some people, but the truth is that it never once occurred to me that
it was God's responsibility to rescue me miraculously from this situation.
Instead, I believed it was my responsibility to serve Him right where I
was. What I asked of God from day to day was very simple, very practical,
and I suppose quite typical of me: Father, I'm alive, and I want to use
this time constructively. How can I be useful to You today?
This was to be my prayer,
as well as my "strategy," throughout the long months of my captivity.
But it was nothing new; it was how I approached every day of my life.
Why should my prayers or my outlook change now, just because I was in the
hands of guerrillas? I knew that God was subtly orchestrating His
plan in the jungles -- not only among the Motilones and the other 14 tribes
we'd been working with, but also among the guerrillas. I assumed
that this situation was part of that orchestration, and I wanted to be
open to whatever God might have in mind. I've always felt that I
could serve God in any situation, and this one was full of intriguing possibilities.
As a result, I wasn't terrified or even particularly anxious about my fate.
I knew it was God -- not my captors -- who would control the outcome of
When people ask me
now, "How could you believe that God was in control, when you were in such
a horrible situation?" the best way I can answer is to tell a story about
something that happened during my first years in the jungles, when I was
out with a Motilone hunting party.
Our intrusion into
the jungles had brought the usual reaction from assorted birds and monkeys
that day, but as we quietly slipped through the dense undergrowth I noticed
a sudden escalation in the volume and intensity of the cacophony.
Millions of katydids joined the animal squawks and screeches, raising the
noise level to the point where our human voices were nearly drowned out.
I'd never heard anything like it.
Astonished, I'd turned
to a nearby Motilone and shouted, "Listen to that! Isn't it incredible?"
The Indian had nodded
his agreement. "Yes," he'd called back, "We heard it too. It's
a piping turkey!"
His remark had stopped
me in my tracks. A piping turkey? All I'd heard was chaotic,
ear-shattering racket! How could anyone notice the voice of one lone
turkey in the midst of this din?
The Motilone had seen
my confusion and had signaled me to stop and listen quietly. When
I did, it took several minutes before I began to pick out which sounds
were which -- animals, birds, insects, humans. Then, slowly, the
separate voices became more and more distinct. Finally, after more
patient listening, I heard it. Behind the hue and cry of the jungle,
behind the voices of my companions, behind the quiet sound of my own breathing,
was the haunting, reedy voice of the piping turkey, sounding for all the
world like it was calling to us from inside a hollow tube.
It had been a poignant
moment for me, a moment that had spoken to me of much more than the Motilones'
highly developed sense of hearing and my own lack of auditory discrimination.
It had made me wonder what I'd missed -- not only in the jungles, but in
my own spiritual life. How much had I overlooked when I'd failed
to patiently "tune in" to God's subtle voice in the midst of life's clamor
In the years that followed,
the piping turkey had come to mind many times as I'd struggled to discern
God's voice and sense his quiet, often barely detectable presence in the
seemingly chaotic situations I encountered. But over time, I had
learned enough patience to be able to see God in the subscripts of life.
And I'd learned from experience that even when I couldn't see or hear what
He was doing, I could trust that He was always there, always working out
His sovereign will, even when I was too overwhelmed by the "noise" to notice
or appreciate His complex orchestrations.
So it was natural for
me, when I was kidnapped, to assume that God was there, working in His
usual way, and that I was there for a purpose.
Of course, it also
helped that I had been in this position before, and had seen what God could
do in such an apparently impossible situation. When I'd walked into
these jungles for the first time, some 28 years before, I'd been shot through
the leg with a five-foot long Motilone arrow and held captive for months
in anticipation of execution. During those months, God had given
me a love and compassion for my Indian captors far beyond anything I had
ever expected. In the years since then, the entire tribe had become
part of me -- my closest friends as well as my brothers and sisters in
Christ. Now I could not imagine life without them.
Yes, I had been captured
again -- but with a difference. These were new "enemies," but I had
been prepared by the experiences of 28 years for this challenge.
It was reasonable, really, for me to assume that God might intend to do
among the guerrillas something similar to what He had done among the Motilones.
So the question was never, How could I believe that God was in control?
The question was, How could l doubt it?
In the first guerrilla
camp, I met with the national political director of the ELN, Manuel Perez,
who explained my official status as "political prisoner." I'd known
him eight years ago, when he'd first invited me to work with him in the
revolutionary movement. He was a former Jesuit priest, and I'd told
him then that I believed Christians had no business killing people -- even
if it was, as the guerrillas claimed, necessary for the advancement of
humanitarian goals, or to eliminate "enemies of the people."
I'd said that as Christians we really ought to be involved in social services,
living the example of Christ, reconciling and saving lives -- both physically
and spiritually -- not engaging in terrorism and bloodshed. I'd even
urged him to get involved in the cooperative movement, which would benefit
the poor farmers of Colombia whose cause he'd claimed to be championing.
He'd seemed very interested in my ideas then; now, eight years later, we
were sitting together in the jungles of the high Catatumbo region discussing
his plans for a new Colombia.
"We want you to join
us," he told me. "We want you to organize health and social services,
set up schools, do all the things you've done among the Indians.
You'd be a part of our national leadership."
I listened respectfully
but noncommittally. I was to be detained for about two months, he
explained, "for dialogue." During that time I would meet with many
guerrillas involved in social services so I could begin formulating a national
strategy. He clearly couldn't imagine that I'd turn down the great
honor he was offering. But just to give me a added nudge in the right
direction, he made sure I understood my options: If I didn't join them,
they'd kill me. As the days passed, I looked for ways to enter into
the lives of the guerrillas, to understand their motivations, backgrounds
and strategies. I felt no animosity toward them. After all,
who was I to judge the guerrillas? We were on an equal footing before
Christ. My job, as I saw it, was not to "convert". I knew that
God would provide the means, so my plan -- if you could call it that --
was simply to live one day at a time and stay alert to small opportunities
for bridge building.
One such small opportunity
came after only a few days in the first camp, when I noticed that I wasn't
the only one who was sick. Some of the guerrillas also had malaria,
but others showed symptoms of hepatitis. As I observed the guerrillas'
activities, I saw that their sanitation habits were contributing to the
spread of the hepatitis virus. To put it bluntly, the guerrillas
seemed to spit constantly, and their spittle contaminated the ground wherever
they went. Eventually, this ended up in our water supply as well
as in the food.
I mentioned this problem
to the camp responsible -- this was what the guerrillas called their officers
-- and like magic, the spitting stopped.
Not long after that,
a different responsible named Arley came to me about another medical problem
in the camp.
"I've been designated
camp nurse," Arley told me. "But I have no training."
"I've trained nurses,"
I told him. "Would you like me to teach you?"
He was an eager student,
quickly picking up simple, basic nursing skills -- points of injection
for antibiotics, dosage calculations, drugs for common tropical diseases,
and even a little dentistry. Guerrillas often needed to have teeth
pulled. Arley took his responsibilities seriously, and I welcomed
the opportunity to serve -- and, of course, to build a relationship.
It was a beginning.
In the two months that
followed, the guerrilla leaders tried everything they knew to draw me into
their movement. They reminded me frequently that I would be executed
if I didn't join them. I lived on a seesaw: One moment I was being
treated almost kindly, and the next I'd be bombarded with abuse.
I avoided argument, stayed away from the more volatile members of the group,
and simply tried to serve -- steadily, undramatically -- in any way I could.
I taught the cooks how to make delicious sauces out of smoked palm grubs,
made bread for the whole camp three times a week, and wrote flowery love
letters for illiterate young guerrillas to send to their girlfriends.
It was amusing in more ways than one.