Prisoners of war, I knew,
were always executed. But before they could execute me, the guerrillas
would make up a list of "charges" against me, publish them in the national media and then formally
sentence me to death for "crimes against the people." This was their usual strategy.
The charges they came up
with were creative. I was accused of murdering 6,100 Motilone Indians;
of trafficking in cocaine and other drugs; of turning Indians into slave
labor in my personal gold and emerald mines; of working for the CIA; of
flying helicopters in army attacks on guerrilla camps; and worst of all, of
teaching American astronauts to speak Motilone, so they could talk to each other in space without being understood by Russians. This
last charge was my favorite. It had a certain romantic ring to it.
As the charges were formulated,
other prisoners -- mostly kidnap victims being held for large ransoms --
were brought in and out of the camps from week to week. I got to know several
of them fairly well, and we tried to encourage each other as much as possible.
One of these kidnap victims,
a helicopter pilot named Franco, was moved in and out of several camps
I was in. We developed a fairly close relationship over the months we were
together. Unfortunately, Franco constantly argued with the guerrillas.
His belligerent attitude made him extremely unpopular with them. It was
as if he were looking for ways to get himself abused or killed.
"Franco," I'd tell him, "It
does no good to argue with the guerrillas. You only hurt yourself. Try
kindness." But he'd fly into a rage, accusing me of "collaborating with
the enemy." Later he'd apologize and say I was right, resolving to keep
his anger under control. But it was hard. He was not a person who
could accept daily abuse and humiliation without fighting back.
Franco had a complete nervous
breakdown after several months of captivity. When this happened the guerrillas,
frustrated by his behavior, asked me to become his official "spiritual
counselor." They knew that Franco professed to be a Christian and saw this
as a means of keeping him intact enough to collect the large ransom they'd
been trying to negotiate for him.
But Franco was not easy to
counsel. For one thing, he kept going on hunger strikes . Four of them,
all told. "I won't be treated like this," he told me before the first one.
"They can't victimize me. I'll show them -- I'll starve myself to death!
They won't get their ransom. I still have some power over my own life!"
I couldn't persuade him not to do it, so he angrily announced his hunger
strike to the guerrillas and was enraged even further when they paid no
By the end of the first night
of his hunger strike, Franco came to me saying, "Oh, my friend, I'm so
hungry! I can't stand it! You've got to bring me something to eat. Can
you sneak me something from your dinner? Don't let the guerrillas know,
whatever you do!"
By this time the guerrillas
gave me a little more freedom to move around in the camp, so I was able
to slip most of my dinner into a plastic bag and hide it under my shirt
until I could pass it to Franco later that night. He waited until he was
in his hammock and wolfed it down. This went on every day of his so-called
hunger strike. And he was always ravenous, so it got to the point where
I was starving to death because Franco couldn't get by on less than my
full ration of food.
Eventually the guerrillas
started to worry about Franco's health. One of them asked me, "Do you think
he might die? How long can he live without food?" Most of the guerrillas
had mixed emotions about it -- they didn't want to lose their ransom, but
at the same time they fervently wished to be rid of him.
Finally, a responsable came
to me and said, "Franco's hunger strike has lasted two weeks now. Can you
do something to make him eat? We're getting tired of this. He's driving
us crazy. We've decided to just go ahead and execute him if we can't get
him to cooperate. After all, he wants to die from starvation, so it will
shorten his suffering if we shoot him now." I decided humor might be the
best solution to Franco's problem. "Don't worry about Franco," I told the
guerrilla. "I'm the one who's starving -- he's been eating all my food!"
The guerrilla laughed uproariously as I described how Franco had been getting
plump while I wasted away from his hunger strike. It became something of
a camp joke -- though Franco never knew about it. After this, every time
Franco announced another hunger strike, they gave me two dinners -- one
for me to "sneak" to Franco to keep him happy, and another for myself.
We survived all four of his long hunger strikes this way. Franco was eventually
But not all of the hostages
fared so well. Many were executed -- especially between February and June.
It was during this time,
too, that the responsables started to clamp down on me in a concerted effort
to force a public "confession" of my crimes against humanity.
I refused. "I've done nothing,"
I told the guerrillas. "You're asking me to lie. I have to tell the truth."
"Then we'll kill you," they
"The truth is a good thing
to die for," I told them. Then I looked each of them in the eye and said,
"I can only die once. But you, my friends, will die a thousand times, because
you'll know you've killed an innocent man."
After that, the responsables
decided to pull out all the stops, trying everything imaginable to break
me. I wondered how human beings could subject other human beings to such
cruel, inhuman treatment.
They tried to break me psychologically
first, using an assortment of ploys. "The Indians have totally abandoned
you," they told me over and over. "We've talked to them, and not a single
one of them cares whether you live or die. You might as well save yourself
because nobody else will."
I didn't want the Motilones
to make any rescue attempts, of course, but I couldn't believe they would
abandon me completely. Surely they remembered our 28 years together.
Surely they would continue the work we'd begun in the jungles whether I
survived or not; it was, after all, not my work, but theirs, and God's.
They could not forget that. As the guerrillas repeated their assertions
again and again, however, I began to have small doubts. Was it possible?
Had I been abandoned?
But by far the worst moments
of my captivity came when I had to watch the executions of the other hostages
-- people who had become friends. As their bodies were ripped apart by
the guerrillas' bullets I was told, "This is what will happen to you unless
you sign a confession." The experience was inexpressibly painful.
The variations of torture
the guerrillas invented were remarkable. Many things that happened during
this time were so terrible that I will probably never be able to talk about
or forget them.
But there were moments as
well that will stay with me forever because of their inexpressible beauty.
These were not at all what you might expect -- not spectacular moments,
or even dramatic moments in the normal sense of the word.
Once, for example, during
the latter part of my captivity, I suffered a severe attack of diverticulitis
-- one of several attacks that involved severe hemorrhaging. I lost about
two quarts of blood this time, was in excruciating pain and eventually
lost consciousness. When I awakened I was being examined by a doctor the
guerrillas had brought into the jungle. He said only a blood transfusion could save my life.
Immediately a fight broke
out among the guerrillas over who would win the "honor" of giving their
blood for me. A young Christian guerrilla was one of those chosen. After
the transfusions were completed, he sat with me for a while. "My blood
now flows in your veins, Papa Bruchko," he told me. There were tears in
his eyes. And in mine, too.
Later that night I awakened
in terrible pain. I tried to separate myself from it, but this time I couldn't.
I was too weak, too exhausted. I felt empty and hollow, and the intensity of the physical
pain increased my enormous sadness over the things I'd experienced in the previous months. There was no comfort for me, I
thought. None. I had never experienced such total anguish.
Then an absolutely amazing
thing happened: A bird known in Colombia as the mirla began to sing. I
looked up and saw the full moon pouring down through the thick jungle vegetation
and felt, inexplicably, that it was shining for me. The mirla's song was
the most hauntingly beautiful sound I'd ever heard. As I listened, I wondered
why it seemed so familiar, why it soothed me so deeply .
The bird's song soared through
the damp, moonlit air as I clung to consciousness.
The music was incredibly
complex, set in a minor key. The notes never repeated; they reminded me
more and more of something achingly familiar, something comforting -- but
I just couldn't put my finger on it. An ancient Aramaic chant -- was that
it? Yes, it was reminiscent of that -- but why did it make me think of
the resurrection of Christ?
The familiarity puzzled me,
but I had no real need to understand it. The music was the most exquisite
I had ever heard; I was sure of that. It was communicating something profound
to me, something I needed desperately but couldn't identify. I let the
song carry me for a long time. Then I lost consciousness again.
When I came to, the bird
was still singing. I wondered whether I might be hallucinating. After all,
everyone knew mirlas never sing at night. And I was desperately ill, barely
hanging on to life. It wouldn't be unusual to hallucinate in my condition.
But what I was more intent on trying to understand was why this song --
real or imagined -- was having such an amazing, restorative effect on my
spirit. I could feel myself coming back to life with each note.
Then, as the bird's song
continued to penetrate the quiet night air, I knew: I knew why this song
seemed so hauntingly familiar, why it spoke to me of the resurrection,
why it comforted me like familiar, loving arms. The mirla was singing a
Motilone minor-key tonal chant, mimicking the traditional sounds with such
amazing accuracy that I could almost hear their words, could almost see
my friends Kaymiyokba and Waysersera and ll the other Motilones I loved,
singing the prophecies of the resurrection of Christ in the timeless Motilone
way, our hammocks swaying together in the rafters of a communal home in
the jungles as they had for the 28 years I'd lived among them. I could
almost feel their warm, reassuring hugs.
In that moment I was lifted
above my agony in a way I'll never be able to describe adequately. I didn't
even care whether it was real or imagined. The Motilones were with me;
I knew it now. I had not been abandoned. And I was going to survive to
be with them again, because God had used the mirla's song to transfuse
His lifeblood into me.
One of the guerrillas walked
over to my hammock as I opened my eyes at dawn. The pain was subsiding
"So," he said softly, "how
did you like your personal concert last night?"
I questioned him with my
eyes. "The mirla," he said. "His song kept us awake all night long. We've
never heard anything like it! The boys wondered whether it was a
special angel sent to sing for you. Did you hear it?"
One day in July I was brought
before a responsable and told that since I could not be convinced to sign
a confession, I would be executed. He gave me three days to prepare myself
There was nothing special
I needed to do, I told him, so why didn't they just get it over with? I
But no, I had to wait the
full three days. So I spent them doing exactly what I'd been doing for
nine months -- teaching, cooking, going about daily life as usual. The
guerrillas watched me closely during this time. I wondered what they were
By this time about 60 percent
of them were Christians. The responsables would have a hard time finding
someone to shoot me. Even those who weren't Christians had become
my friends. I worried about them, but knew that God would complete the
work He had begun in all their lives. I had done what I came here to do,
and I would die without regret.
On the day of my execution,
the responsable ordered me tied to a tree. They read the formal charges
against me and declared that I had been sentenced to death by the "people's
court." I didn't want to be blindfolded. I looked into the faces of my executioners and saw that many of them had tears in their eyes.
Then they raised their rifles
and the order was given. Shots rang out. I waited for the impact of the
bullets. But I felt nothing.
The guerrillas looked at
me with amazement. Then they examined their rifles and said, "These are
It had been one final attempt
to break me. But it hadn't worked.
The next morning Federico,
one of the guerrilla leaders, came to me and said, "Bruce Olson, I have
good news for you! You're being released. Are you happy?"
I shrugged. "I'm indifferent,"
I said. "My concern is for the Motilone people, the solidarity of their
territory, and the continuance of the programs that are so vital to their
future. What about them?"
"Yes, yes, we understand
your commitment," Federico assured me. "We made an error when we kidnapped
you. The charges against you have been dropped. It's an embarrassment to
us that you've been held in our camps. If we've mistreated you we hope
you can find the greatness within you to forgive us. We've decided to leave
the Motilones as an autonomous people. We will leave them alone, and you
may continue your work among them as before."
I was incredulous. "Are there
conditions to my release?"
"You are released without
conditions," Federico said. "Now are you happy?"
"I am, indeed."
Federico's eyes actually
filled with tears. Then he hugged me.
Two weeks later, after a
long trek back to civilization through the jungles and rivers, I was finally
released. That's when I discovered, to my total astonishment, that the whole world seemed to
know about my captivity.
The Motilone people and all
the other Indian tribes in Colombia had joined hands in support of "the
man who is our brother, our friend," threatening total war with the guerrillas
unless I was released. And the media had taken up their cause, running
hundreds of front-page stories in every newspaper in the nation. The entire
Colombian population had then followed suit, rising up as a single voice
to denounce the guerrillas for what they were doing.
"How can these criminals
claim to speak for 'the people' and then kidnap a man who has done more
for the indigenous people of this nation than anyone else?" they asked.
"It's an outrage!"
The presidents of both Colombia
and Venezuela welcomed me back to the world. "You are a national emblem,"
President Barco told me. "For the first time in history, Indians defended
a white man. Their cause has united the Colombian people and given them
the courage to fight against the tyranny of terrorism."
Shortly after my release,
the Motilones organized a meeting with leaders of all the other Indian
tribes of Colombia. Together, they issued an ultimatum to the guerrilla
forces and drug traffickers operating in their lands: "You have until December
to clear out. If you don't go, you will be at war with all 500,000 of us."
The guerrillas' numbers are small, though their weapons are large. War
with the Indians would be a no-win situation. I think they will have
no choice but to leave.
In the weeks since my release,
the drug war has exploded in Colombia. I've followed the news of the deaths
and wholesale destruction with great sorrow. But I'm also filled with pride. The
Colombian people show a new determination, it seems, a new courage to stand up to the drug lords of the Medellin cartel.
Why is it only now -- after
all the years the drug lords have been able to do whatever they liked in
Colombia -- that the people have decided they will fight back?
I remember the people on
the streets of Bogota who welcomed me home saying, "We're inspired by the
example of the Motilones and their courage. We will no longer tolerate
these criminals out of fear for our lives. We'll stand up to them!"
I don't think it's a coincidence
that this is exactly what's happening in Colombia at this moment. Perhaps
the Motilones' part of God's orchestration in Colombia will not be noticed
by many, but I believe it is real and significant. I pray that it will
Several people have told
me, since I've arrived in the States, that my release was the greatest
victory they'd ever experienced. This surprised me. Naturally, I'm
thankful for many things -- especially that I'm alive and free to continue
my work among the people I love. I'm thankful for the guerrilla lives that
now belong to Christ and will continue to be conformed to His will. I'm
thankful, too, for the oneness of spirit that's drawing the people of Colombia
together for the first time in many years. These are victories, of course.
And there are many others I could mention.
But for me, the greatest
victory of all lies in the sweetness of the moments when I caught glimpses
of the "subscript" in God's complex orchestration of lives and events.
In those moments I knew that He was quietly working out His sovereign will,
not only in my life, but in the lives of everyone involved: the Motilones
and other tribal peoples, the people of Colombia, the guerrillas, and indeed,
as I'm now discovering, people all over the world.
In those moments, I knew
-- even before my captivity ended -- that the greatest victory of this
long drama would not be found in my release. It would be found, instead,
in the song of a mirla in the moonlight.
Bruce Olson has been a missionary to the Motilone Indians in Colombia