(AFP) – May 18, 2008
MIAMI (AFP) — From the dark, sweltering jungle, after five years spent as a hostage of Colombian rebels, Keith Stansell managed to transmit a message: will you marry me?
That was the question put to Patricia Medina, the woman who was four months pregnant with Stansell's twins when his plane crash landed deep in rebel territory during a secret surveillance mission.
A US anti-narcotics contractor whose family lives in Bradenton, Florida, Stansell was taken prisoner on the spot, along with two American colleagues, also from Florida. It was February 13, 2003, just before Valentine's Day.
Since then, there's been little news of the men and media reports have dubbed them "the forgotten hostages."
But in a hopeful twist to Colombia's bleak kidnapping saga, Stansell, 43, grasped on the recent release of a fellow hostage, Colombia's former lawmaker Luis Eladio Perez, to carry the marriage proposal to his girlfriend.
Medina met the lawmaker at an airport, amid a throng of well-wishers, soon after his release. She had approached him for any scrap of information about her hostage boyfriend.
Instead, Perez plucked a flower from a bouquet he was holding and handed it to her. He proposed on Stansell's behalf.
"The tears came out of me... and he hugged me," recalled Medina, 36, a petite brunette who lives in Bogota and met Stansell on the job, as an air hostess. "I was sleepwalking, with the rose."
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, hold hundreds of kidnapping victims for ransom, plus a cadre of 40 "political prisoners" they want to swap for jailed rebels.
These include Stansell and his colleagues, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, and French-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate.
For Medina, the marriage proposal was a huge milestone in her battle to knit together a family with scant materials and amid many setbacks.
To start with, Stansell's kidnapping brought the news that he had a fiancee in the United States who was taking care of his two oldest children from an earlier marriage.
Medina wasn't sure where she fit in. In his first proof-of-life video, taken five months later, Stansell didn't mention her.
"That was very hard for me," Medina told AFP. "Keith has given me lots of emotions."
Stansell's American fiancee eventually made a new life for herself, and back in Colombia, Medina focused on making ends meet as a single mom.
The job got tougher as she learned her twins, Keith and Nicolas, had a speech impediment. They seemed to understand one another, but couldn't make themselves understood to others. They screeched in frustration.
Medina began to transmit radio messages to Stansell on a program for kidnapping victims, telling him about his sons, but she didn't know if the missives would reach him.
"I told him I wanted him to be well, even with another person, because he was the father of these children," Medina remembers, sitting with her sons, who wore Spiderman pajamas. "I started to love him more, even though this sounds strange or funny, because of the children."
Over the years, Medina has gathered tidbits of information about Stansell through news reports and from a hostage who escaped after sharing a camp with the Americans.
She knows Stansell hears her on the radio, and that he's improvised a weight set and does a lot of exercise. He speaks Spanish now.
She's also in touch with Stansell's parents and his two older children. She met Kyle, Stansell's 15-year-old son, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez invited the family members of kidnapping victims to his residence. Chavez brokered the release of six Colombian politicians earlier this year.
Prospects for future hostage releases have dimmed, however. Communication with the FARC hit a rough patch in early March when the Colombian army mounted a cross-border attack on a rebel camp, killing a prominent FARC commander.
The FARC later rejected French attempts to get medical help to Betancourt, thought to be gravely ill.
"It's like playing Russian roulette," Medina said of the long standoff over a possible prisoner exchange. "The hostages are at risk all the time, from an illness, an accident, or a (military) confrontation."
Still, she's confident the FARC will free Stansell one day, and as a single working mother, she jokes, she has no time for dates, so she'll wait.
The Saturday after the marriage proposal she took to the airwaves again.
"I said, 'Yes,'" she recounted, smiling. "I said I'd invite half of Bogota."
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