BOGOTA, Colombia - Edgar Bueno, a soldier in the Colombian army, made a four-day journey last month with a nylon leash tied around his neck and a rifle pointed at his back.
He traveled on foot and by boat through rain forests, his starting point being behind the barbed wire surrounding a prison camp of Colombia's most powerful insurgent army.
He and 54 other soldiers were freed in a landmark prisoner swap between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. In exchange, the government released 14 ailing rebels held in Colombian jails.
The trade - the first concrete result of more than two years of stumbling peace talks to end the nation's 37-year-old war - was a prelude to the release last week of about 300 other servicemen captured by the FARC during the past four years. The FARC calls the release a "peacemaking gesture"; critics say it's a public relations show.
Show or not, Bueno was happy to be home. But about 50 officers are still being kept by the FARC to serve as leverage in talks with the government.
"We believe those officers should be with us a while longer," FARC leader Manuel Marulanda said last week.
Sitting in the bedroom of his mother's home, in a working-class neighborhood of Bogota, Bueno, 25, feels a twinge of guilt for being free while others remain in captivity: "It makes me very sad because I know how they live."
The FARC rose up against the state in 1964 as a ragtag band of Marxist ideologues but has evolved into Latin America's best-armed and most powerful rebel group, with 17,000 fighters. While other guerrilla forces have disappeared because of lack of support, the FARC is flush with cash from extortion, kidnapping and "taxes" collected from producers of cocaine and heroin.
The United States is pouring more than $1 billion into Colombia in mostly military aid and training to fight drug production and undermine FARC financing, as part of a government initiative known as Plan Colombia. FARC considers the American aid a form of U.S. intervention in the country's affairs.
Bueno tells his story while sitting near a photograph sent to his mother from the prison camp as proof that he was alive and wrings his hands. He was among 52 soldiers captured Aug. 4, 1998, after running out of ammunition while trying to fight off a rebel attack on the Miraflores military base, in the jungle-covered flatlands southeast of Bogota. He had arrived at the base 15 days earlier as a conscript.
The rebels rounded up the survivors, divided them into three groups, and led them to a nearby river where boats waited to take them to prison camps. The townspeople, whom Bueno thought he had been defending, applauded the rebels.
He shared camp with 38 other captives. At first, they held out hope for a quick release or a rescue by government forces. When they heard an airplane overhead, they thought they were saved. Instead, the Colombian air force jet bombed the camp, and the 200 or so rebels took their prisoners deeper into the jungle.
The captives soon realized they would be held indefinitely. "At least a prisoner has a sentence, and he knows that after five or six or 10 years he'll get out," Bueno says. "But for us it was so unpredictable."
Labeled prisoners of war by the rebels, and hostages by the military, Bueno and his companions whiled away the days playing chess and poker and rereading letters that arrived every three or four months from their families via the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Bueno has 250 letters that he kept as a memento of his days in captivity. He also kept the nylon leash that the rebels would tie around the necks of the captives when moving them to different camps, or as punishment. Each soldier was connected by the cord to several others; anyone who lost his footing or tried to flee risked choking his companions: "It was like being taken along like a dog."
Any attempt to do exercise was seen by the rebels as preparation for an escape attempt; the guerrillas confiscated a barbell the soldiers had made by filling cut-off pant legs with wet sand.
Bueno, who was 22 when he was captured, said he fought to maintain his dignity throughout his captivity and has emerged from the experience with a deeper conviction to fight the rebels.
"Before, I fought to defend my life. Now I would fight to defend my country, I now have ideals to fight for," he says.
The government and the rebels described the prisoner swap as a breakthrough in the peace process in the hopes of rallying dwindling public support for peace talks. But President Andres Pastrana, who was elected on a promise that he would bring peace to this war-ravaged country, acknowledged that the release was not technically part of the negotiation agenda.
"Colombians are beginning to gain confidence in the peace process, but I want to insist that now the road we have to take with the FARC is to reach accords on the issues on the [negotiating] table," he told reporters.