French reporter Romeo Langlois released by Colombian guerrillas

 

The Miami Herald

Nursing a bullet wound but looking healthy, French reporter Romeo Langlois emerged from the jungles of southern Colombia on Wednesday after being held 33 days by the nation’s largest rebel group.

Released to an international delegation and brought to the village of San Isidro in the department of Caqueta, Langlois, 35, said the guerrillas shared what little food they had and treated him with respect.

“Other than being detained for a month while I was wounded, everything was good,” he told Venezuela’s TeleSur, which broadcast his release. “They never tied me up … They always treated me like a guest.”

A longtime conflict reporter in Colombia, Langlois was embedded with a counter-narcotics force when it was ambushed April 28 by the 15th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In the ensuing firefight, four security forces were killed and Langlois was shot in the left arm. According to reports, that’s when he stripped off his military-issued helmet and flak jacket and surrendered to the rebels.

His release Wednesday in San Isidro turned into something of a rally as Langlois shared a wooden stage with the local FARC commander and villagers who blamed the government for neglecting the region. An unidentified member of the community council called on the administration to provide water, electricity and suitable roads to the village. He also said that famers grew coca plants — the precursor to cocaine — because they had no other alternative.

Wearing a long sleeve shirt and seemingly unfazed by his wound, Langlois lamented that Colombia’s civil conflict is being underreported and said the administration can no longer sweep the violence under the rug.

“The government has sold the idea that this conflict was almost over, that there were just a few hot zones left. That has always been false,” he said to a cheering crowd. “The fact that they had to hold an independent journalist for 33 days to remind people of the situation, shows how tremendously degraded the conflict has become.”

San Isidro sits near a FARC stronghold and close to where Langlois had been picked up. Hundreds had gathered in the village for his release.

“War is something we experience almost every day,” Village council leader German Pena told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “There have been innumerable battles in this area. We’ve seen bullets flying on the main street of the village.”

Colombia has been fighting the FARC and other groups for almost a half century. Violence peaked in the 1990s and 2000s, but the government has won praise for bringing down the homicide rate by 50 percent over the last decade and making serious inroads against the rebels. Even so, the government has been fighting perceptions that violence is on the uptick again.

Last week, the FARC killed 12 soldiers in the northern Guajira province before taking refuge in Venezuela. Earlier this month, the group is suspected of staging a brazen daytime bombing in the capital that wounded a former minister of interior and killed two of his bodyguards.

While President Juan Manuel Santos has said he’s open to peace talks with the group, the outbreaks have had him on the defensive.

Langlois’ detention marked the first time since 2003 that a foreign journalist had been held by rebels. The Foundation for Press Freedom said it had no record of any other foreign journalist being held for this long. His detention also came just weeks after the FARC announced they would no longer kidnap for ransom.

Langlois said that both the guerrillas and the government had played politics with his case, and he suggested that the guerrillas had delayed his release to coincide with the FARC’s 48th anniversary last Sunday.

After days of negotiations, Langlois was turned over to an international delegation comprised of a representative of the French government, the International Red Cross and former Colombian Sen. Piedad Cordoba. The delegation was expected to travel over land to Florencia, Caqueta’s capital, before flying to Bogotá late Wednesday.

“Although he’s wounded in one of his forearms, the journalist Langlois is in good health,” Jordi Raich, the head of the Red Cross delegation said in a statement. “We’re very pleased that this operation was successful.”

Langlois was filming a documentary about government drug eradication efforts when the brigade he was travelling with was ambushed. He said he was pinned down in the fighting and that an army sergeant he had interviewed at length died less than a yard from him. Langlois said he thought the officer might have been killed by the same bullet that grazed his arm.

If that soldier had been born in some other part of the country, he easily could have grown up to be a guerrilla, Langlois said.

This war is “the poor killing each other,” he said. “It’s supremely tragic. There are no good guys or bad guys.”

On his Twitter account, former President Alvaro Uribe accused Langlois of being too sympathetic.

“Langlois: It’s one thing to be journalistically curious, but it’s another to identify with terrorists,” Uribe wrote.

Initially, the FARC said Langlois had been seized in military clothing and that he would be considered a prisoner of war. On Wednesday, the reporter said he had always tried to tell both sides of the conflict and was “humiliated” that the guerrillas initially designated him an enemy.

Founded with Marxist underpinnings, the FARC have increasingly turned to drug trafficking and extortion to finance its survival. The group, which is considered a terrorist organization by Colombia and the United States, is thought to have about 9,000 active members.

Asked what he had learned from his ordeal, Langlois said he didn’t need the experience to “know the Colombian conflict or to know the rebels. I’ve been doing this a long time.”

“What I take from it is the conviction that one must continue covering this conflict,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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