Herbin Hoyos

“The families don’t lose hope that the kidnap victims will return until the last hour of the last day of the year.”

To many Colombians, Christmas means rejoicing with loved ones, long holidays, unending festivities… For them, December may very well be the most carefree month of the year.

For others, reality is not quite as flowery. Past and present victims of the country’s social unrest find themselves battling in on-going captivity, or struggling to re-adapt to normality after the trauma of being kidnapped by criminal and terrorist organizations.

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Herbin Hoyos, a Colombian journalist and broadcaster, has been the face, or mouth, behind the radio program “The voices of kidnapping” for the past twenty years. A turbulent past — which saw him spend 17 days at the hands of the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, and a period of exile in Spain after receiving numerous alleged attempts on his life from the same armed group — motivated him to establish the program on which past captives share their experiences and relatives send words of comfort to present victims.

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Now an iconic figure in Colombia for leading the non-violent, humanitarian resistance to the nationwide turmoil that has over the years claimed innumerable victims — including himself — talks to Colombia Reports about how those who have been kidnapped live the holiday season.

“Well returning to freedom in itself returns them to life, right?”

Being able to spend the biggest holiday of the year with one’s family is certainly a reason for many to celebrate, but the Christmas experience varies hugely for Colombia’s recovered victims.

“Depending on the length of the kidnapping, so too will the impact of the kidnapping be different.”

Hoyos has heard of trauma stories lasting from a few days to several years, with those suffering the longest in captivity often having the toughest homecoming.

“They find many changes in their families,” Hoyos explains. “They’ll find that everything’s different, their kids are older, some come back and they’re partners have left them, others lose their properties …”

Support, however, is always there for those recovering from their ordeal. The festive period brings many recovered victims of kidnapping together to rejoice in their freedom, share, and support each other in recovering from the trauma.

“Always. They always get together,” Hoyos tells us. “They become very family-orientated, they’re extremely welcoming, and the families of those who have been kidnapped in the past become even more unified than they were before.”

This support in numbers is equally true for those still being held captive. During the Christmas period, Hoyos’ radio show intensifies its focus on Colombia’s present victims.

“What we do is dedicate all our side-by-side support to the families and, when new kidnap cases appear, we immediately commit ourselves to accompanying them from the first moment until the captive returns to freedom.”

And the moral aid doesn’t stop there. Following an annual tradition, on Friday Hoyos called together relatives and sympathizers of those who have yet to be salvaged to Bogota’s main square to hold a night-long vigil with his radio show and send out messages to the captives. The same was done in cities the world over, and the program was followed internationally.

“This is something special that we do every December, and we’re in our twentieth anniversary of holding this vigil,” Hoyos says.

The holiday season’s vigil for the freedom of those kidnapped is essential in the nation’s efforts to combat this type of crime.

“[We do it] to make them visible, so that the country doesn’t forget them, so that society and the media keep remembering them, without abandoning them, without leaving them in the limbo of oblivion.

Despite the goodwill that is reignited when the Christmas lights appear, there is no laying off from the kidnappers, who were responsible for the disappearance of almost 7,000 people between 2003 and 2012.

“Nothing positive can be expected from criminals of this level, no.”

Although one may hope to see signs of compassion at this time of year, Hoyos assures us that this has never been the case, with organized groups often declaring a “Christmas truce” whilst kidnaps still take place and victims remain in captivity.

For the radio show host, the hardest-hitting incident this holiday season has been that of 43-year-old Manuel Montes, recently released from a four-month long captivity, whose inspirational wife traded her freedom for that of her sick husband only a few days ago. She is currently still in the clutches of a guerrilla group believed to be the FARC.

“This has affected us deeply, to see the level of cruelty, cynicism, criminality of these kidnappers,” Hoyos says fervently.

Does this apparent lack of empathy mean no hope that the future will diminish the reign of terror that has destroyed so many families in the past? To Hoyos, the fact that there are still so many people imprisoned in Colombia’s wilderness with many more constantly disappearing, makes his outlook understandably pessimistic.

“At least at this moment in time, we’re all in a state of uncertainty.”

Nonetheless, beacons of hope do shine out through initiatives like Hoyos’ unfailing weekend program, when the voices of their loved ones reach the ears of those being held captive.

This Christmas brings home forestry engineer Leon Andres Montes, who after a 240-day ordeal expressed his thanks to the radio show that “kept him alive.”

“The first thing he told was that every weekend he would listen to his family, that every weekend he would listen to his parents, his friends, his neighbors, and this filled him with so much strength to continue persevering through his kidnap … it sustained his survival mentality in the midst of captivity.”

And, of course, the most inspiring manifestations of hope are the messages themselves, which gain fresh, untiring optimism during Christmastime.

“They’re all about Christmas, about hope, about the desire for them to return before the year is out. The families don’t lose hope that the kidnap victims will return until the last hour of the last day of the year. And then, after 12, they’ll say ‘he didn’t arrive this year, let’s hope that it’ll be in the first minutes of the new year.’ They always keep hope until the last seconds of the year.”


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