On April 12, 1999, Leszli Kálli boarded a plane in Colombia to work on a kibbutz in Israel, but she never made it. The plane was hijacked by a leftist guerrilla group and forced to land on an abandoned runway in the jungle. Leszli, along with her father and the other passengers, were held hostage for 373 days. Her diary reveals her innermost thoughts, darkest fears, and visions of hope.
Leszli vividly presents this painful time in her life: trapped, held at gunpoint, and never knowing if she would live to see another day. Although never close before, the bond between her and her father grows as they provide one another with vital support. Alienated as the only woman in her group, she maintains her guard but finds comfort caring for animals, including a tarantula living beneath her bed. As the pages of her diary unfold, so, too, does the incredible story of one girl's fight for survival against overwhelming odds.
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In the Mountains of Colombia
Thursday, March 25, 1999
Today, for the first time, I opened the Bible in search of advice. My aunt always does this; she says the Bible sends us messages. This is her method: she opens the Bible, flips to a page, any page, and places her finger on a passage at random and interprets the message contained in the words she reads. This is what I have done today, and this is my "message": I know thy works. Behold, I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it. For thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My word, and hast not denied My name. (Revelations 6:8-9). With all my heart I hope that the "door" is my trip to Israel. Can this be the message I have been sent? Thank you, God.
Wednesday, April 7, 1999
I haven't written here for a little while, because I was waiting for something to happen, something different. I guess I was hoping for some kind of change because right now my life is so dull, so boring. I get so angry when I look around me and am reminded, yet again, that nothing ever happens to me. Today, however, something has finally changed.
Firstly and most important, I am going to Israel. For how long? I don't know, but all I can say is that I am overjoyed; everything worked out and today I bought my plane ticket from Madrid to Tel Aviv. Today is Wednesday and I am leaving this coming Monday.
Dear friend, please forgive me for not regaling you with all the stupid details of what is going on in my life, but I figured I would only bore you with my stories. Dear God, You and I will always be together, in this life and in any other. You will always be my innermost being, my "self." Even if or when these pages come to an end, You will always be inside of me. The most wonderful thing about having You at my side is that with You all my fears, all my doubts vanish. I know this is true because You are my creation I have created You, or who knows? Maybe I just allow You to exist. Between us there is no need for goodbyes, and knowing that is a comfort to me. From now on, I will tell You all sorts of new stories about the things going on in my life. The next time I write to You I will be in Israel. Today I will be packing my bag and rest assured, You will be right there at my side. I love You. Leszli.
Wednesday, May 17, 1999
What happened, Leszli? Just when everything was going so well, just when you allowed yourself to feel happy that things were finally coming together, that the doors were finally opening...My God, what happened? Why did everything suddenly go black? Why didn't anyone stop to ask me what I thought of all this? I almost can't believe it: I should be in the middle of a kibbutz, telling you what a good time I'm having, telling you how grateful I feel that I have been given the gift of turning my dreams into reality...but no. Here I am, writing to you now, still in Colombia, a hostage of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional [ELN, National Liberation Army], in the middle of the jungle, a place that in many ways is much farther from home than Israel.
It all happened so fast that even now, a month later, I still have trouble believing it, and I have to tell myself over and over again:
Leszli, you have been kidnapped.
Dear diary, my one consolation is the knowledge that you are still with me, as always. You can't believe how strange it is for me to write to you from this place. Actually, I have had to start a new notebook, because the rest of you is back with my suitcase, and here I am, starting a new page in a new diary. I couldn't take you with me in my carry-on bag: it was so crammed full of things that there was no way to fit you in, and since the blue suitcase was so huge, they didn't let me bring it on board, and off it went into the baggage compartment. Please forgive me; I imagine they must have read you by now.
You are and will be the only vehicle I have for expressing my feelings. The last time I wrote you I was free, and for a long time I didn't write at all because I figured you were as bored as I was with my empty, monotonous life. And so I swore I wouldn't write again until something worthwhile happened to me.
From this point on I am going to tell you everything. Every last detail I can remember will go down on paper, now that (thank God!) I actually found a piece of paper, and am able to write some kind of summary of my days and nights since April 12.
In brief, this is the story: last year I received a kind of proposal from one of Salvador's friends to visit a kibbutz in Israel. It sounded like an incredible plan for a long, long time I had been wanting to go on some kind of adventure. I wanted to do something that would allow me to break free from the hellish, boring routine that my life had become.
As you know, every weekend I would get together with my girlfriends to go out to the latest "hot spot," but inside it all made me feel so empty. My life went on like that until the end of December, which is when I got serious about this idea. From that moment on, I put all my energy toward turning it into a reality I even held raffles to raise money because at home we weren't in the best shape, financially speaking. The one good thing was that at least my flights were free, because my father is an airline pilot, and wherever his airline goes, I can travel for free. The one bad thing, though, was that my father wasn't very keen on the idea of me going to Israel the thought of me, the apple of his eye, his pretty little girl, all alone at the other end of the earth...he hated the whole thing. At first he said no outright it was a crazy plan, no way would he support it, he said. The best thing I could do, he said, was go to college and forget all about the trip. Every time he said it, though, it only made me want to go more, because that's the way I am. I have always been rebellious that way.
After thinking it over, I told him that all I needed from him was his permission and the plane tickets from Bucaramanga to Bogotá and Bogotá to Madrid. Nothing else. The rest of the trip would be my problem to deal with. Well, mine and my mother's my mom had promised to help me with everything else; she's always supported me in things like that, in everything.
I pulled everything together, but two weeks before the trip, I started having dark, dark dreams. It's odd, I've always felt that dreams have this strange way of predicting things that might happen...
Anyway, though, my bags were packed, my tickets were ready, my dollars saved up, and all I wanted was to get started on my big adventure in Israel. Once I was done with the kibbutz, I planned to spend a few days in Egypt and Greece, two countries I had always dreamed of visiting. People had told me how to swing it so that it wouldn't be too expensive. Then, when it was all over, I would come back to Colombia to do the sensible thing and start college here. What more could I ask of life? Every night I prayed to God, asking him to help me achieve this goal that meant so much to me.
On the night of April 11, I had a long talk with my mother. Among the many things we discussed, a comment slipped out:
"Mommy, I'm scared," I told her.
"Leszli, that's not like you," she said. " I've never seen you scared. Now I'm worried. "
"Oh, no, no, forget it," I said, to calm her down. "I don't know why I said that. It must be the jitters you know, normal pre-trip jitters."
On the day of my trip, I woke up at 5 A.M., and said goodbye to my older brother Nandor, who was working at a hospital. His shift started at 6 A.M. He hugged me and said, "Take care, honey."
After I showered and got dressed, I sat down and talked for a little while with my mother and my sister Carolina. The plan was that
my father would fly with me to Bogotá, where he would put me on the plane that was scheduled to leave for Madrid that same night at 7:05 P.M. Our flight to Bogotá was scheduled for 2 that afternoon.
We were sitting in the living room when the phone rang. It was my father.
"Hi, sweetheart. Listen, we're going to have to leave earlier. The 2:00 flight was canceled. Are you ready?"
"Yes, I'm ready."
"All right, sweetheart. I'm on my way, then."
I said goodbye to my mother and my grandmother, and went downstairs. My sister was coming with us to the airport; she would bring the car back home after we took off. My mother didn't come with us; she and my father were divorced in 1986 and, as you know, they can't stand to be in the same room together.
Once we had picked up my father and we were on our way to the Bucaramanga airport, my father said:
"Sweetheart, you know I think this trip is really a bad idea, everything was arranged so quickly and...I don't know...I just don't think you should go, there have been so many obstacles along the way, and I can't help but think that it means this just isn't the right thing for you to do."
I laughed out loud at that.
"Oh, come on, Dad! Are you kidding?"
We pulled up at the airport. As we sat around waiting in the cafeteria, he said it again, much more seriously this time.
"Listen, Leszli, there's still time to turn around."
"I'd say you turned around and went crazy, that's what I'd say!"
We checked in, and they gave me my seat assignment: 12F. My father would be next to me in 12C.
I could hardly believe it. There I was, sitting in a Fokker aircraft, on an Avianca flight from Bucaramanga to Bogotá. I had pulled it off after planning the entire thing in record time. Finally my trip was becoming a reality. I gazed out the window, content. The seats next to me were empty. The plane took off and the first thing I did was look out the window and up at the sky, to have a silent conversation with God: Thank you, God, I said. Finally this is truly happening. Thank you so much.
That day I would leave South America, and the following day I would leave Europe and land in the north of Africa. From there, I would head out to a kibbutz in the Golan Heights in Israel. I was happy, so happy, even though I had had to say goodbye to my mother and my sister Carol. We didn't cry, but they knew how I felt, and anyway, at that moment there was nothing anyone could have done to stop me no matter how much my father harped on and on about how poorly the trip had been planned, that he had been wracked with nightmares, that he had a bad feeling about the whole thing. He had actually suggested we go to our apartment in Cartagena. There, he said, I could think about it a little more, and at least plan it all a little better after all, how could it be that just yesterday on the internet I had found the place I would be staying once I arrived in Tel Aviv, just like that? It was all too crazy, he said. And I replied that yes, maybe it was crazy, but there was nothing in the world he could do to make me change my mind. No way, I said, no matter what anyone said. Oh, God, if only I had listened...
My father sat down three rows ahead of me to discuss something with someone else who was also going to Bogotá that day, a union organizer who had once been a copilot of his. My father, an aviation commander, wanted to know how the talks were going between the airline and the pilots, and they sat together talking as the plane took off. My father was actually traveling that day for two reasons: one, to take me to Bogotá, to see if on the way he could get me to change my mind about the trip. If he didn't, he would deposit me on the plane bound for Madrid and introduce me to the crew and ask them to help me out if I needed it once we were in Spain. Dressed up in his pilot's uniform, he would help me navigate the labyrinth of El Dorado, the Bogotá airport. The second reason he came with me was that after dropping me off he needed to fly to Cartagena, his base of operations as a pilot. He had to go to the Naval Hospital there to get them to sign some release papers for him. A few months earlier he had fractured his hand in an accident, and he needed the hospital to sign off so that he could get back to work.
As the plane's engines began to whir, I felt a wave of joy come over me, and I looked out onto the runway and the surrounding fields, idly wondering about the Israeli desert and the people at the kibbutz. What were they like? How would they welcome me? What kind of work would they give me? I sat there, wrapped up in my thoughts for a while, until the sound of the motors and the plane taking off brought me back to reality, and then suddenly we were in the air. Little by little the houses and the trees grew smaller and smaller, and the happiness I felt was complete. Serene and profoundly moved by the experience, I pulled out the in-flight magazine from the seat pocket in front of me, and after a few minutes I emerged from my reverie as I heard the little beep go off, letting us know that the seat belt sign had been turned off and that we could move about the cabin. Instinctively I looked up and saw that, yes, the announcement had been made, and I watched as several people immediately got up from their seats. The first thing I thought was that a fight must have erupted between a couple of passengers, because a man suddenly put on a hood and pointed a pistol at the head of one of the flight attendants. Then, another man a bit further back got up and came over to sit down next to me. He stayed there for the rest of the flight. Right then, at the very same time, three other men opened the overhead luggage bins, removed some black scarves, and placed them over their heads.
I was stunned. The thoughts running through my head were chaotic, disjointed those scarves were ski masks and, good God...first I was stunned and then I felt paralyzed, totally paralyzed as I watched each of them pull out huge silver pistols. One of the men up front went to the cockpit and another one, a stocky man with a husky voice and an accent that I will never forget, straight out of the Colombian mountains, took control of the plane. What is going on? I don't understand...am I imagining this? I tried to catch a glimpse of my father, but I couldn't see him from where I was sitting. Right then the man who had commandeered the plane began to speak.
"Attention," he announced to the passengers. "Put your hands on the back of the seat in front of you, keep your heads down, and your eyes on the floor." He paused for a moment, and then continued:
"We are members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, and we are transferring one of our commanders to one of our regions. Once he disembarks, you will be able to resume your flight to Bogotá. Do what you are told and everything will be fine. I don't want anyone here to try and play hero, because it won't work and we don't want anybody to get hurt."
That was about when I started to panic: I was petrified that my father would get up, to come back to my seat and calm me down, which would make them think he was playing hero, and then they would shoot him on the spot. I looked around me, and the man who had taken control of the plane signaled for me to approach him. The other hijacker, the one who had sat down next to me, said to me, "Honey, they're calling you over."
I stood up and walked five paces, but then the man in control suddenly yelled out, "No! Sit in your seat and keep your head down!"
I spun around and raced back to my seat. The man next to me, who could feel how terrified I was, turned to me and whispered, "Relax, honey, nothing's going to happen to you."
"But it's my father, he's up front, please don't do anything to him. He may get up to come over here," I said. In a gentle tone of voice, my seatmate once again told me not to worry.
"Sir, are you going to take us out of the country?" I asked, taking advantage of the moment to ask him a question. He looked at me as if to say, "Boy have you got an imagination," and then replied, "No, honey, we're going to land and then you're going to keep going."
He rested his hand on the seat in front of him. It was a thin, sweaty, trembling hand.
As I turned to look at the people around me, I could see the anguish in their faces, and I heard whispers, groans, gasps. One woman in my row, on the other side of the aisle, began to cry. At that moment I heard my father's voice calling out to me, telling me to stay calm and not to move, that everything would be fine, and that I didn't have to worry about him; he was fine. In response I yelled out that he didn't have to worry about me it wasn't me crying. I was all right, I said, and I would stay right where I was. Hearing him speak in such a serene voice calmed me down somewhat, because I had been worried about him, worried that the hijackers would think he was a naval officer, since their uniforms look a lot like pilots' uniforms.
Diary, you know I wear reading glasses, and I was wearing them right then. But I was thinking about the wad of dollars in my bag it was all the money I had saved up for my trip, and I wanted to get to it before it was too late. So I turned to the man next to me and asked him if I could put away my glasses, because I didn't want them to shatter while we landed: if they broke while I was wearing them, I said, I could end up with glass in my eyes. He said fine. Quickly, I opened my bag, stuck my glasses inside and removed the envelope with all my dollars, and stuffed it in my pocket. That was my one and only reaction at that moment.
Soon enough, the plane's ascent tapered off and we slowly started to lose altitude. Through the window I watched the plane glide over a broad river. Once we reached the far shore, the plane suddenly made a deafening noise and I watched the landing gear come down just as we made our final descent. As we hovered just above the treetops, the plane continued down, down until finally we were on the ground. The landing was surprisingly smooth "like butter," as they say, though the plane did get splattered with gobs of mud, and as we slowly decelerated, the motors whirred louder and louder and the poor Fokker airplane buried itself deeper and deeper in the muck. At one point the plane almost came to a full stop, and tried to turn around as if to go back in the other direction, but something was stuck and the plane didn't budge an inch after that, no matter how hard the pilot tried: he accelerated as hard as those turbines would let him, but it was completely useless. Shortly after that, the plane came to a halt, accompanied by a thunderous noise as the two engines died down. Immediately the hijackers opened the doors and the man up front, the one who seemed to be a kind of team leader, grabbed the other man in an embrace, and they both began shouting: "We did it! We did it!"
After they finished congratulating one another, they told us that we would have to leave all our things on the plane; all we could take with us were our IDs, which we were to hand over to the person in charge of the hijacking. One by one we got up. My father waited for me to reach him so that we could disembark together, and when I finally made it over to where he was, he asked me, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," I said. "What about you?"
"I'm okay. Let's get out here now, and see what this is all about." Together we walked toward the exit door, handed over our IDs, and deplaned. The men who had overtaken the plane were still jumping around and cheering the hijacker with the hoarse voice, congratulating him on his triumph. At that moment, I was still unable to feel rage; I was too frightened by the scenario that had suddenly unfolded before my eyes, and everything had happened so quickly that my mind was unable to process the difference between an event that for some was pure happiness, and for others, an exercise in pure humiliation. The one thing I did feel, quite rapidly, was the dramatically different temperature and climate in this part of the country, a suffocating heat and humidity that enveloped me in seconds, disconnecting me entirely from the hijackers' celebration. The heat in Magdalena Medio, the region where we landed, is absolutely insufferable: your clothes cling to your body all day long, and that day in particular the sun was shining with a vengeance.
My father and I got in line behind the other passengers who had gotten off before us and were now walking along the landing strip. As we could now experience firsthand, the plane had been virtually immobilized by the mud in which it had landed the landing strip was a river of muck that made walking a serious challenge. As you took a step, your entire shoe would sink into the muck, and you had to really work to lift it out again. I was wearing sneakers, thank God; the ladies in high heels and sandals had it much worse than me, and some of them decided to just take their shoes off and walk barefoot. It was much easier for them that way, though it was awful all the same because nobody is used to walking in mud like that, not even the poorest farmworkers. If a bunch of farmworkers had seen us like that, I'm sure they would have felt pretty bad for us, but the people watching over us right then were far from a bunch of farmworkers: they were men and women in uniforms, without insignias or anything distinctive to identify them, and they were all standing at attention along either side of the mud path. It was as if they had come together to create a kind of walk of fame for us: some of them had cameras and were actually filming us as they smiled from ear to ear, proud of the incredible feat that had been pulled off that day. Never in my life have I ever felt as bizarre as I did at that moment, with people recording me as if I were a piece of merchandise to be negotiated at some later point. It was all so strange, and I have to say that it was on this day that I truly learned the meaning of the word "humiliation."
All of a sudden, a shot rang out behind us. We all froze in our tracks and then turned around to see what was happening: one of the men standing near the plane called out an apology, saying he had fired his gun by accident. Nothing to worry about, he said, just keep on walking and don't turn around. I asked my father if he thought they would be able to get the plane out of the mud in time for us to resume the flight, but he said no they would need special equipment to clear all the mud off the landing strip. Then he told me not to worry about that. We kept on walking. At that point I still believed what they had told us, that they were dropping off one of their commanders and that in a little while we would be continuing on to Bogotá. How naïve I was...
"What is all this?" I asked my father.
"Leszli," he said, "this is a kidnapping."
"But Dad, who are these people?"
"They're guerrillas, sweetheart, but I don't know which ones, they aren't wearing any kind of identification." As he said this, he glanced at the people around him within earshot, and from the expression on his face I could see he didn't want me to ask any more questions. Even if he had been able to tell me what guerrilla group they belonged to, I wouldn't have understood anything. Back then, I would have had to ask my father what a guerrilla was, that was how little I knew about this sort of thing. After that we didn't talk anymore. We didn't have to; our faces alone expressed a thousand unspoken, anguish-filled words as we trudged silently down the rest of that miserable, muck-filled track, our ankles aching from the effort and our lack of experience in that terrain. At the end of the long walk one of the men guided us in a decent, if slightly hurried, tone of voice:
"This way, please," he indicated, pointing us toward an immense swamp surrounded by tall grass that looked like sugarcane. In front of us I could see one of the other passengers in jacket and tie, submerged up to his chest in the yellowish marsh water, holding his arms up in an effort to keep at least some part of him dry, even if it was just his shirtsleeves. There was a very disoriented little old woman who had been traveling under the special care of the crew because of her delicate condition and age. As I watched her cross the swamp, accompanied by two of the men in uniform, I could hear her complain about how much Bogotá had changed, and how the El Dorado airport had really deteriorated.
Two big canoes with outboard motors were waiting for us at the edge of a gently rushing river about twenty meters wide. Several uniformed men helped us onto the boats so that we wouldn't lose our balance, guiding us toward the middle of the boat, which was less dangerous than at the edges or over the crossbar. Each canoe could hold about twenty people, if we sat face-to-face with our backs against the sides. The boats were like huge bananas sliced down the middle with all the fruit scooped out. On the floor there was about an inch of dirty water, a mix of mud, gasoline, and black oil. With no other choice, we all sat down in the muck, and I felt terrible for all those nice clothes getting dirty. So many of us wear our nicest outfits when we travel on airplanes, to look nice for the flight and when we arrive at our destination, and now all our pretty clothes would be soiled beyond repair from all that slop and slime, but there was nothing to be done about it.
Copyright © 2000 by Leszli Kálli López
Translation copyright © 2006 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.