Former hostages run for office in Colombia

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John Otis reports on politicians in Colombia who were once held hostage by rebels in the jungle, but are now running for office again.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Services, PRI and WGBH-Boston. Colombia voters go to the polls this Sunday to elect a new legislature. Some of the names on the ballots will be familiar. Several of the candidates were kidnapped by Colombia's FARC rebels and held for years in hidden jungle camps. The FARC has been weakened in the past couple of years though and it's been releasing hostages to gain some political leverage. Several of the freed politicians are back doing what they did before they were captured. They're running for office. John Otis prepared this report in the capitol, Bogota.

JOHN OTIS: A television anchor describes the joyful moment in January, 2008 when Clara Rojas was released by her captors. Rojas had been managing the campaign of presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt in 2002 when the women were kidnapped by leftist guerillas. Rojas became pregnant by a pregnant foot soldier and gave birth to a baby boy in the rain forest by an emergency C-section. She was finally released after more than 6 years in captivity. She wrote a book and traveled the world but eventually Rojas began to feel restless.

CLARA ROJAS: People were asking me, why don't you get involved in politics? Why don't you come back? And they convinced me.

OTIS: Rojas joined the opposition liberal party and is running for a seat in the Colombia senate. If she wins in Sunday's vote, she could end up serving with some of the same people she lived alongside in the jungle. A half dozen politicians kidnapped by the FARC guerrillas are now running for Congress, even though their status as high profile lawmakers is what prompted the guerrillas to abduct them in the first place. Not surprisingly, some of their relatives fear for their safety. Carolina Perez is the daughter of former Senator Luis Eladio Perez, who's now running again after being released in 2008.

CAROLINA PEREZ: Well really to be honest, at the beginning, we were really not into it that much. We were scared because we went through a lot. We weren't sure about the situation, about the security.

OTIS: Her father, Luis Eladio, points out that the guerillas are weaker now and security in Colombia has improved since the last time he ran for office. But Perez, who's been out stumping for votes, also admits that he's making up for lost time. He spent nearly seven soul-numbing years in the hands of rebel gunmen with nothing to do but day dream about life as a free man. One of his fellow prisoners was Ingrid Betancourt, the former presidential candidate who was rescued in 2008. She killed time in captivity by drawing up a 190 point governing plan in case she was ever elected. Betancourt is not running this time around but most analysts believe she too, will attempt a comeback. Perez points out that for many former hostages; politics is the only thing they know how to do. We've been politicians all our lives Perez says. You wouldn't tell a doctor or a lawyer who's been kidnapped to stop practicing law or medicine once they were freed. In the traditional sense, years of swatting mosquitoes and sleeping in the mud isn't great preparation for would-be lawmakers but it does provide some political cache. The ex-hostages are viewed by many Colombians as heroes. And while most candidates hail from the middle and upper classes, Clara Rojas says her ordeal as a hostage gave her a taste of how the other half lives.

ROJAS: I had to sleep on the floor. I had to scrounge soap in order to bathe and brush my teeth. All that made me think much more about the Colombians who never had the opportunities that I had.

OTIS: Most of the ex-hostages are running as opposition candidates. In the meantime, their relatives are reluctantly coming to terms with their political ambitions. Carolina Perez says her whole family is now involved in her father's senate campaign.

PEREZ: It is what he wants to do, it is what he has always loved. And so he just told us, ?Look, I came back for you guys and for what I love to do. What am I supposed to do now? So let me do it. Be with me.? How can you say no?

OTIS: For The World, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.