NEIVA, Colombia – During the three years they were held by rebels in malaria-infested jungle camps, the young Lozada brothers (search) braved rain-drenched nights, hunger and humiliation, but never lost hope of one day seeing their family again.
After a ransom payment and a five-day trek across steep paths and swollen rivers, the brothers finally returned home this week. But instead of feeling joy, they thought mostly of their mother, a congresswoman, still languishing in rebel hands.
"We don't want to celebrate or have a party until she is free," Juan Sebastian Lozada, 18, said in an interview Friday with The Associated Press at his home in the southern city of Neiva.
In the same luxury apartment, leftist rebels dressed as police officers dragged him, his brother Jaime Felipe, now 20, and their mother, Gloria Polanco, from their beds on the night of July 29, 2001. The daring abduction sent fear through urban Colombians and brought a conflict mainly fought in the countryside to their doorstep.
The rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (search), or FARC, took the family deep into the group's southern stronghold before separating Polanco from her sons six months later.
"They came for her one night and told us she was going to give an interview before being released, and that we would be released shortly afterward," Jaime Felipe said. "We knew they were lying. It was the worst moment. All I could do was pray."
The FARC, which kidnaps hundreds of people every year as part of its 40-year-old struggle to topple the government, has included Polanco on a long list of "political prisoners" it wants to exchange for jailed rebels. Three U.S. military contractors captured in February 2002 are also on the list.
The brothers said the rebels never hit them but would sometimes torment them by depriving them of reading material or board games for long stretches or falsely promising them imminent release.
But they were always permitted to listen to newscasts on a crackly radio, their only contact with the outside world.
"The only time I felt happy was when I would hear my father's voice. It gave us strength," Juan Sebastian said.
Jaime Lozada, a former senator and regional governor, said the FARC contacted him shortly after his wife and sons were seized and demanded $800,000 for their release.
"It was an absurd sum. Nobody has that kind of money in Colombia," Lozada said.
The father said he negotiated with several FARC commanders through a system of messengers, who traveled back and forth from guerrilla strongholds bearing handwritten notes.
After two years, the rebels reduced their ransom to $400,000, which Lozada said was still far beyond his reach. Then, two weeks ago, a deal was unexpectedly struck. Lozada declined to reveal how much he ultimately paid.
Government and army leaders this week denounced his decision, warning that it would only encourage more kidnappings and help fund the FARC's armed struggle.
Lozada said he felt humiliated having to give in to the rebels, but he could not let his sons "slowly die in the jungle." He also accused the government of failing to protect his family.
The Lozada brothers said they often dreamed of escape but knew it was futile.
"There were between 20 and 30 armed guards at every camp we stayed in," Jaime Felipe said. "And where would we run to? We were trapped in the middle of the jungle."
Jaime Felipe wants to go to college in Bogota (search) this fall, while Juan Sebastian hopes to squeeze the three years of classes he missed into six months at his former school in Neiva, 150 miles southwest of the capital.
Both said their priority now is to press the Colombian government to agree to a prisoner exchange with the rebels so their mother can return home.
The hardline government of President Alvaro Uribe has ruled out any such deal unless freed rebels agree to go abroad to ensure they cannot commit further crimes in Colombia, a move the FARC deems unacceptable.
The United States also says it will not make any concessions to the FARC, which it considers a terrorist organization, despite the rebels' capture of three Americans in February 2002 after their plane crash-landed in guerrilla-held territory during an anti-drug mission.
Jaime Felipe knows what is at stake for his mother and the others.
"If the government doesn't negotiate, she and the Americans will die," he said.