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Betancourt's Unsung Hero

Since the dramatic rescue last week of 15 hostages held by Colombia's leftist rebel movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, much of this country's attention - if not the world's - has been focused on Ingrid Betancourt.

Finally though one of France's leading national daily newspapers, Le Figaro, has caught up with reports that have appeared elsewhere around the globe.

In today's issue it carries the story of the man without whom we would probably not have been able to share in Betancourt's joy as she stepped out of the 'plane on to the tarmac and into the lenses of countless cameras last week.

William Perez is the man Betancourt has herself described since her release as her "guardian angel." He was the one who fed her like a child when she was going through the darkest of her dark days during more than six years in captivity.

When Betancourt gave up the will to live and refused to eat saying she wanted to die, it was Perez who urged her to remain strong, who spoon fed her, who constantly reminded her she had to stay alive with "a spoonful for her daughter Mélanie, one for her son Lorenzo and one for her mother Yolanda."

A corporal in the Colombian army, 36-year-old Perez was taken captive back in March 1998 in the southern region of the country where he was stationed at the time.

He had basic medical knowledge and was able to use it to good effect to nurse Betancourt and his fellow captives with whatever supplies the rebels gave him.

The two might have come from very different backgrounds, Perez was the young soldier from a humble family, Betancourt the privileged daughter of a diplomat, and a presidential candidate. But their time together in captivity created a bond that few of us are likely ever to understand.

And that bond is likely to last no matter how different their experiences might have been since their release.

It's hard to switch on the radio, turn on the television or pick up a newspaper here in France at the moment without hearing, seeing, or reading the very latest news on Betancourt.

Feted by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, on her arrival back "home" in France, Betancourt underwent a series of medical tests at the weekend at the Val de Grace hospital in Paris.

She has since been filmed having breakfast with her friend and former French prime minister, Dominique, de Villepin, has received an invitation to visit the Pope, and is expected to be decorated (by Sarkozy himself) with France's highest order, the Légion d'honneur, during the country's national celebrations to commemorate Bastille Day on July 14.

Back in the Colombian capital, Bogota, Perez underwent a similar series of medical checks before being awarded a promotion and a free family holiday that the Colombian government has reportedly promised all the released soldiers.

Sadly it'll be a holiday without his father, who died just a few weeks ago weeks, or his grandfather who had a fatal stroke on hearing of his release.

There are rumours that Betancourt will write a play and perhaps return to Colombia to run for political office.

Perez has apparently said he only wants to remain in the army and has volunteered to join rescue missions for the 700 hostages still held in the jungle.

Somehow their paths are likely to cross as it's hard to ignore the powerful statements both have made in interviews since their release.

Either Betancourt's, "He was my nurse in moments when I was in very bad health. I want to recognise him specially, because if it were not for William, I would not be here today."

Or from Perez, "We helped each other. My strength was hers and her strength was mine. When I was down, she was the one who lifted me up."

Submitted by:

Johnny Summerton

Johnny Summerton is a Paris-based broadcaster, writer and journalist specializing in politics, sport and travel. For more on what's making the headlines here in France, log on to his site at http://www.persiflagefrance.com




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