I'm familiar with Caguan, the part of Colombia where Ingrid Betancourt was taken almost six years ago. She is still being held there in appalling conditions.
I also happen to know Ivan Rios and Joaquin Gomez, the mafioso Marxist leaders of the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), because I went to Caguan to interview them, first for Le Monde and then for my book on "forgotten wars."
So. Having spent some time with these pseudo-revolutionaries, having taken the time to listen to their demented, implacably logical speeches overlaid with a fine patina of death-squad communist jargon, I have some pretty clear ideas about what may be the last chance to free Ingrid Betancourt.
What do they want, these men of the FARC?
Certainly not money, since they are the leading producers of coca in the world, and they also provide heroin for junkies in the United States and Europe. In fact, they are by far the richest guerillas on the planet.
Certainly not the "humanitarian exchange" that we have been quibbling about for years now. President Alvaro Uribe announced the release of nearly 200 guerillas last June, a gesture he made unilaterally and bravely: However, there was no return gesture from the FARC.
It is also unclear whether the FARC is really so attached to the famous "demilitarized zone" that President Uribe has rightly refused to give them. What exactly are we talking about? The 310 square miles of the municipalities of Florida and Pradera? The 70 square miles of El Retiro that certain other sources have suggested? And how would that be a good thing when they already control most of the Caguan region, an area as large as Switzerland, demilitarized nine years ago by Andres Pastrana, President Uribe's predecessor?
What the FARC want, the recurring leitmotif in all their communiques, and what they told me when I interviewed them--in fact I am surprised that no one else seems to have noticed or heard it--is stranger, essential, and so simple. Their bottom line is this: "We want to be considered warmongers, belligerents, real fighters, not bandits (which is how they are described, correctly, in the world press) nor terrorists (as they are listed, again with good reason, on the U.S. State Department blacklists)."
Well, my feeling is that this "demand" is not unacceptable, all things considered.
My feeling is that the Colombia that I knew--and incorporated, along with Angola, the Sudan, Burundi, and Sri Lanka, into my exploration of the world's "forgotten wars"--is a country that is indeed at war, and whose opposing sides are therefore, in the strictest sense of the word, warring parties, belligerents.
I am tempted to say that if this is the condition, the single point that stands in the way of freeing the hundreds of hostages rotting away with Ingrid Betancourt deep in that jungle, if the killers' only demand is that they be recognized as fighters in an unacknowledged war--perhaps it isn't such a terrible idea.
Some fear that these executioners would be given an unwarranted legitimacy.
And I can still hear President Pastrana telling me, in his bunkerized office in Bogota, "The state would dishonor itself if it conferred such status on the authors of such unspeakable crimes."
But what can we do if this is the only solution?
Are we, like the Italians who sacrificed statesman Aldo Moro in 1978, going to sacrifice for "the honor of the state" the life of someone who has fought for freedom for her companions in captivity?
If it all hangs on the pronouncement of just one word--which happens to be correct--isn't it worth trying to say it just once?
Here is my proposal.
That a mediator, a real one--by definition not Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez--go as quickly as possible to Caguan.
That he or she be sure that word "war" is pronounced and then ratified by both FARC leader Manuel Marulanda and Alvaro Uribe.
Then, in that clearly staked-out dialogue area, the transfer of prisoners can take place, a transfer none of the parties seem to oppose, at least in principle.
Then each side will have its back against the wall.
Each will, for the first time, be confronted with its own truth, with its own calculations--and, of course, its own crimes.
Especially since saying "war" also means saying "rules of war," some of which include the banning of forced "disappearances," the recruiting of child soldiers and, naturally, the taking of hostages.
War? You are saying war? Well, yes. We have to work with what we have. Let's see who has the better strategy.
French philosopher and writer Bernard-Henri Levy is the author, most recently, of American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville and Ce Grand Cadavre a la Renverse.