By: Michael Easterbrook, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Ruth Morris was more knowledgeable than most people about kidnappings in Colombia, having worked in the country as a journalist for five years. But she says nothing could have prepared her for the 11 days she and American photographer Scott Dalton spent in the clutches of leftist rebels.
Morris, a 35-year-old British citizen raised in southern California, said she was sometimes so scared she had to force herself to eat the rice, spaghetti, and fish provided by the rebels.
The two veteran journalists, released to the Red Cross on Saturday, said they were never harmed but were constantly worried what their fate would be and how their families were dealing with their abduction.
Morris and Dalton, 34, of Conroe, Texas, were the first foreign journalists to be kidnapped in Colombia’s four-decade-long war.
Both live in Bogota and had been in Arauca on assignment for the Los Angeles Times when they were stopped at a roadblock by the National Liberation Army on Jan. 21, then led away.
Their taxi driver, who was released a day later, said the rebels told him they planned to grant the journalists an interview with a senior commander, or send them back with a communique. But two days later the rebels said over a clandestine radio station that the pair had been “detained” by the insurgents, who complained about the U.S. military presence in Arauca.
At one point, the rebels demanded a halt to Colombian military operations in the northeastern state but then backed off the demand.
The National Liberation Army and a larger rebel group are fighting U.S.-backed government troops and an outlawed paramilitary group for control of oil-rich Arauca, which is about twice the size of New Jersey.
On their sixth day in captivity, the journalists were marched down the mountain where they were being held at a rebel camp. Morris thought she was about to be freed. Instead they were taken to another rebel camp. “It was as if someone had removed my heart,” she said.
The guerrillas told the journalists they were being held for a $50 million ransom and warned them they’d be shot if they tried to escape.
Colombia has the highest kidnapping rate in the world. Last year, 3,000 people were abducted.
Morris had written extensively about the problem and was even preparing a television documentary on it. But she never thought she was personally at risk.
“It never occurred to me that we would be kidnapped by the guerrillas,” said Morris, speaking from a Bogota hotel where she and Dalton were recuperating hours after their release. “It was something that I didn’t think could happen.”
The kidnapping was apparently not planned, rather a spur-of-the-moment decision by a rebel at the roadblock, who would remain with them throughout most of the 11 days.
“He told me at one point that he was proud to have been the person to have made that decision, that they don’t see many foreigners in those parts and they just couldn’t give up the opportunity,” said Morris, who also has reported for Time magazine and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.
Although they were guarded by several armed guerrillas at all times, the two journalists were allowed some freedom of movement. Almost every day, Morris walked to a nearby river, where she would bathe and wash her clothes. She also wrote scrupulously in her notebook.
Every evening, she and Dalton would play gin rummy before going to sleep.
“I won the first couple of nights, but she caught on pretty quickly,” said Dalton, who worked for The Associated Press for nine years before leaving to pursue freelance projects last year. “I’d say we ended even.”
Speaking from the hotel after showering and shaving, Dalton said he would spend part of Sunday with friends watching a taped broadcast of the Super Bowl that he missed while in captivity. Later in the week, he planned to fly to Texas to see his family.
“We were always confident we’d be freed eventually,” said Dalton, his bug-bitten legs the only visible evidence of his ordeal.