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Three Americans Freed

Aired January 24, 2003 - 14:26   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: It's a story we've been telling you about for days, and that's the three U.S. journalists kidnapped by a Colombian paramilitary group. As you know, they were freed last night. We now go to Colombia, where our Kevin Sites got with, side by side, Robert Pelton, since he's been freed.
KEVIN SITES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, we're here with both Robert Young Pelton, Meg Smaker and Mark Woodeven.

Am I pronouncing that correctly.

People have waited to see these guys for a long time, so we want to get right to it.

Robert, you've had quite an experience. Can you tell me what it was like out there?

ROBERT PELTON, FREED JOURNALIST: We were treated well. We basically walked into a group of about 150 paramilitaries that were going into Panama. And at first, it was a little tense, of course, but as the days wore on, we realized they were just going to hold on to us until they pulled their men out of the jungle. So we're healthy and fine.

SITES: But when you actually ran into them, they told you initially they were leftist rebels, and they played that charade for a week with you. Why did they do that?

PELTON: It was an interesting head game, because I thought they were paramilitaries by the way they dressed, but they said no, we're members of the FARC and we're here to protect the Campesinos, but they'd just shot, you know, a couple of Indians, so we didn't believe that to be true.

But they wanted to see if we were sympathizers, if we were missionaries or leftist oriented people, and apparently, they did it a lot (ph), so you have to be very careful in terms of which side you pick and what kind of political statements you make.

SITES: What was the reason that you decided to go into the Darien Gap? I mean, this is a very lush jungle area on the border of Colombia and Panama. People don't go there very often. There's not a lot of information on it, yet you three were out there in the middle of the jungle with -- basically, it's a war zone out there.

PELTON: Basically, it's a war zone out there. Right, well, I pitched the idea to National Geographic Adventure, and they thought it would be an interesting idea, to see if the Darien could be done. As you know, it's a very remote place, a very difficult jungle.

As you dug, dug, deeper, deeper, I could not find any hard information about the actual dangers. I knew the groups here, I was comfortable with dealing with them. But sometimes you just have to roll the dice. In this case, we were treated well. Everybody's afraid of the Darien, but in actual fact, it's not that scary. We were treated well. We did not come across all the major groups that are supposed to be here, just one.

SITES: Meg and Mark, I was talking to you earlier. You said, for the most part, you felt fairly safe through the entire trip, until the last day. Tell me what happened on the last day again.

MARK WEDEVEN, FREED JOURNALIST: Well, I mean, I would say the main point is that we'd been moving, continually closer toward the pueblo, which is the point of contact for the Red Cross, to the point of release, eventually.

And we arrived there after about eight days, I believe it was, and we could actually see the Pueblo. We were overlooking the small village below, and that point, we were then led off further into the hills, and it was another two days before we were finally released.

SITES: You had quite an experience, though, since you're the only fluent Spanish speaker here, they took you to the river, and they asked you how you felt about the FARC, and you basically said that you thought basically the FARC was OK, and that in some ways -- maybe not. I'm sorry, you tell me what you said to them.

MEDEVEN: Being fluent might be a bit of a stretch. But simply put, I believed that I was with the FARC, and so when they directed questions about the paramilitary, I played the game and probably told them what they wanted to hear, which in hindsight, I wish I would never -- but it worked out all right. These aren't malintentioned people.

SITES: Meg, what was the most difficult part of the experience for you?

MEGAN SMAKER, FREED JOURNALIST: Probably the not knowing, every day we were told, tomorrow, we're going to get you to this town, we're going to get you to Inke (ph), and then you're going to be released. But 10 days of that, you just kind of get a little stressed out.

And then when we started actually backtracking and coming, just coming from where we came, it was kind of like now we're going back in the jungle, what's going on?

SITES: So it was just tense not knowing what was going to happen to you or even where you were?

SMAKER: We had a rough idea of where we were, because of his GPS, but the thing was, I didn't know why they'd kept us for so long. And you can't always speculate, but you don't really know. And we weren't given that much information, so all we can do is your imagination starts running away with you. You're thinking of different movies you've seen, "Proof of Life," "Romancing the Stone," and everything is just going, so It just kind of takes...

SITES: Your families are going to be happy to see you, and I'm sure they're happy to hear from you now if they're watching.

Robert, people are asking if your survival skills, all the war zones that you've been to, helped in this particular situation. We talked earlier about the ambush itself. Tell me again about what happened when you walked into the column of armed men, 150 men out in the jungle.

PELTON: Well, the group we'd run into has just shot at three Kuni (ph) Indian guides and killed one, and we had to make a conscious decision whether to retreat, go back, or else go walk into that ambush ourselves. So we met as a team, and then I discussed the various options. We decided that we would walk directly into the ambush, and that way, we would make solid contact with these people, that they would know who we were, we wouldn't sneak up on them, and they wouldn't sneak up on us, and it turned out that was the right decision, and -- but we made it as a team. Survival skills are not singular. They're part of everybody's concerns and then fears.

SITES: In the lesson you learned from the experience, what can you tell us?

PELTON: Trust people. I mean, there's a lot of fear here. People fear the unknown, they fear groups that they've never met. Everybody told us people would die, that we'd be killed. But when you actually meet these people face to face, you share food with them, you understand why they're fighting, why they're in the jungle. They're Colombians, you know, and we felt that even though we weren't happy about being kidnapped or kept away from our families and our jobs, that they had a reason for doing so, and, you know, it's not our country, it's their war.

So all I can say is I'm thankful to the people that came, that assisted us after our release, and caution everybody to learn as much as they can about the country.

SITES: Speaking of that, there's an embassy plane behind us waiting to take you back to Bogota, and I'm sure people are anxious to talk to you, so we'll let that happen.

Again, we're speaking with Robert Young Pelton, author and war correspondent, who has just come back from about 10 days in captivity in the jungle bordering between Colombia and Panama. Also Meg Smaker and Mark Wedeven, both 22, and having had the experience of their life here, I think.

Mark has been traveling here for about a year now, and I'm sure this might be one of the most interesting aspects of that journey. Meg is a firefighter back in California, and I'm sure the families will be happy to hear from them.

If there are any questions from Atlanta?

PHILLIPS: Kevin, I do have a quick question.


PHILLIPS: And that is, Robert, he said he had a chance to hear their story and spend, you know, so much time with this is kidnappers. Does he plan to write about that? Does he plan to write a story about the individuals that kidnapped him and then tell their story?

PELTON: Yes, I'm writing an article for "National Geographic Adventure" magazine. And my initial intention was to meet up with the groups in the Darien. I spent quite a bit of time with this group, and I think it will come out very interesting.

SITES: You were all saying to me earlier, that you had felt a certain way about the paramilitaries, but after this experience, maybe a little bit different, maybe a little more understanding of their viewpoint as well?

PELTON: Well, you don't really have a choice, but yes.

SMAKER: It might not be so much understanding of their cause, but now they're humans to us. We've spent time with them, and they're not these monsters that we thought they were. They're not just like us, but they're...

SITES: You said human beings almost the same age as you in some case.

PHILLIPS: Younger, 14, 16 years old.

SITES: And if nothing else, maybe your experience has really drawn attention to what's happening in Colombia, a 40-year-old civil war here, various different factions fighting here, leftist rebels, paramilitary groups. The major losers in this battle, of course, are the civilians with tens of thousands who have been killed here, and also millions displaced from around this country. So it's quite a sad story. These guys got a chance to experience it personally.

It's interesting to hear what you have to say. Thank you very much for talking to us. Back to you in the studio.

PHILLIPS: Incredible.

Kevin Sites, from Bogota, Colombia there. Thank you. You can hear the plane there, gearing up, ready to take those three American journalists back home.


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