One of Ingrid Betancourt's first hot showers in more than six years turned, for a moment, into a nightmare. Safe in a Paris hotel room just days after she was rescued from her guerrilla captors—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC—she was showering when her son accidentally switched off the bathroom light. "I found myself in complete darkness and lost all sense of where I was," Betancourt, 46, later told Le Figaro newspaper. "I thought, 'My God, they've arrived, the FARC are back.'"

Some frayed nerves and a brief flashback are understandable, given what Betancourt has gone through. In 2002 the former Colombian senator and then-presidential candidate ventured into rebel territory in southern Colombia to show support for people of the beleaguered region. That's when Marxist FARC rebels—then a powerful force of some 16,000 funded by the illegal drug trade—took Betancourt hostage, hoping to swap her and other captives for FARC members in government custody. For the next three years, "I was in chains all the time, 24 hours a day," Betancourt later told reporters. The rebels tortured her and fell into what she called "diabolical behavior ... so monstrous I think they themselves were disgusted"—including, it appears, withholding medication when she became seriously ill. FARC released two videotapes proving they had her hostage, but four years passed without any sign that she was even alive.

Then, in May 2007, another hostage escaped: Jhon Frank Pinchao, a Colombian policeman, who said he had been held alongside Betancourt for months. "Ingrid never cries," he told reporters. "She is too strong for that, she never shows the pain." Devoutly Catholic, Betancourt whittled a rosary out of wood and relied on her "spirituality to stop [from] falling into the abyss," she said to Europe 1 radio. She was also determined to be reunited with her young son and daughter, who were living in France with their father, from whom she is divorced. "It was because of them," she later explained, "that I kept up my will to get out of that jungle."

Her home in the wilderness, she would say, was "an absolutely hostile world ... no sun, no sky, a green ceiling ... and dangerous animals. But the most dangerous of all was man, those who were behind me with their big guns." Finally, earlier this year, Colombian military officials hatched a plan to free her. They impersonated a FARC commander's voice on the phone to dupe rebels into moving 15 hostages—including three Americans (see box)—to a new camp. On July 2 military commandos disguised as rebels and humanitarian workers met the group in the jungle and persuaded them to get on a helicopter, supposedly for a meeting with a new FARC commander. Once on board, the commandos overpowered the rebels. "I saw this cruel commander who had acted so terribly to me now was on the floor blindfolded," Betancourt told reporters. "Then we heard a voice telling us, 'You've been liberated.'"

Composed and looking frail but surprisingly healthy, Betancourt touched down at a Bogota army base July 2; she stayed up all night with her husband, Juan Carlos Lecompte, and sent him out for oranges for breakfast. The next day she rushed to hug her children Lorenzo, 19, and Melanie, 22, aboard their plane as soon as they arrived from France. Seeing her family again, she told Le Figaro, was "like an explosion of happiness."

Betancourt and her children then flew to France, where she has dual citizenship because of her first marriage to a French diplomat. She lunched with old friends, passed a hospital physical and met with French president Nicolas Sarkozy; next up is a trip to the Vatican to meet with the Pope. But before long Betancourt plans to return to Colombia, where she says she will fight to get the remaining 700 or so FARC hostages freed and, possibly, run for president again.

First, though, she will spend a good chunk of time with her kids, who are, to her surprise, suddenly both taller than she. "The last time I saw my son ... I could carry him around," a tearful Betancourt said at the Bogota airport. "They're going to have to put up with me now because I'm going to be stuck to them like chewing gum."

  • Contributors:
  • Nina Biddle/Paris.