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'Kidnap Radio' Sends Messages of Hope - 2001-08-13

In Colombia, kidnappings have become a key financing tool in the long-running guerrilla war. This year, more than a thousand families were plunged into despair, after a loved one was taken hostage.

Kidnappings are now such a widespread phenomenon that a dozen radio programs have sprung up around the country that carry messages from the families of kidnap victims to the hostages. Its the one crutch the families have, to help them survive the long painful ordeal.

Inside a small airless studio, at the Inravision radio station, a cluster of families wait their turn to get behind the microphone. Some clutch scraps of paper where they have written down messages - words they hope will be carried over the airwaves to their husbands or wives, parents or children being held hostage in remote corners of Colombia.

A 14-year-old girl named Jenny speaks into the microphone. As she tells her father how much she misses him, she breaks down into tears. The technician stops recording and rewinds the tape, so Jenny can calm down and try again. The show's producer Gabriel Alfonzo explains, they don't allow tears on the program.

Messages are suppose to give courage to the people in captivity, he says. Tears are too painful. They're suffering enough already. More than 3,700 people were taken hostage in Colombia last year, making it the worldwide capital of kidnappings. Most of the hostages are held by left-wing guerrilla groups, who use the ransom money to finance their fight to bring down the government.

For the families of kidnap victims, the wait is excruciating. Weeks and months pass with no information. And when the kidnappers do call, the ransom negotiations can last more than a year. That is why kidnap radio programs are so vital.

Its the only outlet families have to feel connected to relatives who've disappeared. As a minimum humanitarian gesture, most kidnappers allow their victims to listen to the shows.

David is an 18-year-old student who comes every week to send messages to his grandparents. They were grabbed outside their home on the outskirts of Bogota more than a year ago.

"It's so important to me to send them messages," David explains. Today, he says he told them he was about to start studying at a university. He used to tell them everything he says. But David admits he's not sure his grandparents are listening. The family has received little information.

Others, like German, the owner of a construction company, are luckier. The kidnappers actually allowed him to speak to his wife Luisa who was captured 10 months ago. He said, "We had the opportunity about four, five months ago to speak by radio and we asked her if she was listening to the messages and she told Yes Yes! Keep sending them. So that's the reason we're here."

German admits its hard to send happy encouraging messages, when your heart is so heavy. But he's been told by former kidnap victims that the messages are a lifeline. "Most of the time," he said, "they listen to the program and when the program finished they start thinking about the next program. Because its the only thing they hear. They hear other programs, but this is from their families, its very important. It gives them hope."

In fact, some kidnap victims, like Lorenzo, a 62-year-old businessman, say they doubt they would have survived if it hadn't been for the voices on the radio.

"I heard messages from my daughter every week," Lorenzo remembers, his voice breaking with emotion. Messages from his brother, he says, were so important. He says there were times when he would become terribly depressed, living at the mercy of some guerrilla commander who could hardly read or write. He says the hostages held onto those radio messages. They made him want to go on living.

Lorenzo came back after his five month ordeal a different person. The nightmare of kidnapping has left him, like thousands of Colombians, a trembling, traumatized shadow of the man he once was. But he says thanks to kidnap radio at least he survived.