Out of Captivity: Surviving 1,967 Days in the Columbian Jungle by Mark Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes with Gary Brozek (2009)
Out of Captivity is a firsthand account from kidnapped American ex-military “contractors” who had the misfortune to crash in the southern hinterlands of Columbia on February 13, 2003. Their work as professional avian counter narcotic “spies” spotting coca fields ends the minute their single-engine Cessna seizes up at 12,000 feet. Anti-government FARC guerillas surround the crash site, taking three men, Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell, and Tom Howes into custody. The FARC fund themselves through extortion, drug-trafficking and kidnapping. The guerillas are constantly hounded by government helicopters. They must constantly move the Americans to avoid detection because any rescue attempt will result in the Americans’ execution.
Unlike The Law of the Jungle—a telling of the larger geopolitical picture surrounding their kidnapping written by John Otis—Out of Captivity focuses on the day-to-day trials of the three men, from capture through release, and the five years in between. The story unfolds through their own voices and journal entries: how the crucible of captivity allowed three not particularly close Americans to forge a sustaining relationship with each other, as well as other captives (political prisoners and Columbian soldiers). The angst of being wounded, then forced-marched for weeks through thick jungle, is well-portrayed; it is easy to slip into the shoes of each of these men and their fears and sources of inspiration.
The reader gets a well-edited chronological presentation of the series of “camps” they were shunted back and forth to: camps varying from steep, vegetated Andes mountainsides to the flat Amazonian rainforest. The men are overseen by teenage captors, a third of whom are female; desperate rural kids for whom joining the FARC, a life-long, dangerous commitment, actually represents a step up.
The reader receives a well-described picture of what the men were forced to eat (e.g., fish heads and chicken’s feet) and how they slept (hammocks, and sometimes on the jungle floor itself, with snakes, insects, and flesh-eating infections). The hardship is presented clearly, but so are the rare moments of levity as the men gain the courage necessary to withstand years’ worth of misery and false promises.
Each of the books’ chronological chapters are further broken down through the men’s own words (polished by Brozek); at any time, you know which of the three men is speaking. We get a real feel for their personalities, their values (e.g., senses of dignity and patriotism) and their shared goal of freedom. It would be foolish to refute the men’s own words as they describe removing parasites with cigarettes or maintaining hope by hearing the voices of loved ones through purloined radios. Four stars out of five.