Six years ago, Orpaz Ohayon, then 23 years old, and his childhood friend Benny, also 23, had just finished their service in the Israeli Defense Force. Growing up in the Jerusalem suburb of Maale Adumim, the two had been inseparable as neighbors, classmates and close confidants. So once their duty to Israel was finished, the pair decided to travel abroad together. Like many of their countrymen, they set out for South America.

But what started as a backpackers’ dream – hiking through the rugged terrain of backcountry Colombia to see some ancient Inca ruins – quickly became a nightmare when anti-government guerrilla forces captured them and held them hostage. The intervention of world leaders and the involvement of a local Chabad-Lubavitch center, though, helped guarantee their release on the second day of Chanukah.

The youths’ story and that of their co-hostages – five other travelers from Israel and Europe were captured – made world headlines at the time. Ohayon’s mother Tammi, however, provides a unique insight into the ordeal in an interview included in a new DVD produced by Jewish Educational Media.

Previewed at the concluding banquet of last month’s International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries, “Connected: Hakhel in Our Times” highlights the interconnectedness of Jewish communities across the globe.

Reached at their homes in Israel last week, both Ohayon and his mother detailed the 2003 nightmare that became a celebration of freedom.

Hours after the kidnapping and half a world away, the captives’ families were notified. Tammi Ohayon flew immediately from Israel, choosing to travel to Barranquilla, the city closest to where her son was believed to have been taken. A friend in Israel who worked for a travel agency gave Ohayon the only phone number she had in the city, that of the Rabbi Yossi and Chana Liberow, directors of the local Chabad House.

“From the moment that I came, Rabbi Yossi was such a mentsch,” recalled Ohayon. “He arranged for someone in the Jewish community to pay for my hotel room since we had no way of knowing how long I would stay. The hotel was close to Chabad so that we could eat there and be close to the community.

“He arranged for a car and a driver,” the woman continued. “He took care of everything that we would need to do the work that we had to do.”

Five of the released hostages pause for a group photo before being airlifted to a military base from the Colombian jungle. Orpaz Ohayon is on the left.
Five of the released hostages pause for a group photo before being airlifted to a military base from the Colombian jungle. Orpaz Ohayon is on the left.

Worldwide Effort

Casa Lubavitch in Barranquilla became a home base of sorts for Ohayon and the family members of the three other Israeli hostages.

According to the son, speaking from his home in Maale Adumim, the Liberows spoke directly with Israeli diplomatic officials in Colombia on the families’ behalf. They even reached out to Colombian authorities. When the Vatican in Rome got involved – a common occurrence in such cases, given that many guerrillas in South America are staunch Catholics – the Liberows wrote a letter to Rome for Ohayon.

“My mother says that she would not have survived one day in Barranquilla without Rabbi Yossi,” said Orpaz Ohayon. “Not only because of the help that he gave, introducing her to the Jewish community and arranging meetings, but also because of the support that he gave her. His family took my mother on short day-trips between meetings, just to take her mind off things for a moment. And this was essential for her.”

“My mother is very strong,” he added. “And she fought for me like a tiger fighting for her cub. But without support from anyone, what would have happened to her?”

For three and half months, revolutionaries held the hostages, each day forcing their captives to march deeper into the jungle for six to 12 hours at a time. They traveled from one base to another, always surrounded by at least 12 to 15 armed guards. Ohayon and his companions attempted to escape three times.

The hostages knew next to nothing about the efforts being made on their behalf. Only after they were finally released did they realize how many people had been working to free them and to what extent.

Two days after they were kidnapped, they overhead as their guards listened to a radio broadcast that included news reports of the kidnapping. Hardest of all to deal with, they heard the worried pleas of their own relatives begging for their release.

Those pleas did not fall on deaf ears. The world community raised such a tumult over the incident that the guerrillas gradually adjusted their demands and came to an agreement for the release of the captives.

Speaking by phone from Banquilla, Lieberow expressed his own conviction that “the concentrated efforts of so many people on behalf of the hostages made the guerrillas compromise in their demands. Instead of asking for money and the release of members of their group from prison, they asked that a non-governmental committee come and see how the government of Colombia was treating the indigenous people. This is what happened, and finally the hostages were released.

“They had been held since before Rosh Hashanah,” continued the rabbi, “and they were released on the second day of Chanukah.”

Ohayon said that he knew of his planned release three days ahead of time.

When the appointed time came, “we had to walk six to seven hours. Through the night, we walked, and in the morning we saw a reporter from Reuters,” he related with a slight laugh at the strangeness of the encounter. “This is the first person we saw from the outside, a reporter. He took a few photos, and then he got on a helicopter together with us and we flew to an army base, and then to Bogota to meet with our families. The whole time I was on the flight, I just felt so free. I felt very free.”

After an emotional reunion with their relatives, the four Israelis participated in the Chabad-sponsored menorah lighting in Bogota. They went home two days later.

Now pursuing an advanced degree in engineering, Ohayon still keeps in touch with the former hostages. Last year, one of the Israeli captives celebrated his wedding. Two others flew in from Germany and England to attend the celebration.

This year, as they do every Chanukah, Ohayon and the three other Israelis will hold a reunion to celebrate their release and give thanks to G‑d.

Each of the families speak regularly with the Liberows, who have visited them in Israel three times since the kidnapping.

“Every single day, I am thankful to that family,” said Tammi Ohayon. “They are such warm, special people. I am always excited to speak to them. I love them so much, and I cannot thank them enough for the strength that they gave me.”