But now, the onetime hostage, who says she has taken some time to rebuild her life, is preaching forgiveness as the way to achieve peace in Colombia after decades of conflict.
Far from the lush jungles where she spent six years in captivity, much of it in chains, the Franco-Colombian woman recalls the feeling of being released from the clutches of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
"There is satisfaction to have been able to survive. It's quite a primal feeling, but that's the way it is," Betancourt told AFP in an Internet video interview from London, where she is studying for a doctorate's degree in
theology at Oxford University.
During recent spring cleaning, she came across a box filled with her jungle belongings: A radio, a watch "that always shows the exact jungle time," her detainee uniform, socks and underwear.
"The feelings I got from taking out these mementos are completely different from those I felt when I put them away," the 51-year-old said.
She still recalls the small details of her rescue by undercover soldiers who had duped the rebels into thinking they were handing 15 hostages — including Betancourt, three Americans and 11 Colombian troops and police — to a humanitarian mission.
"I can still see the movement of the grass when the helicopter landed on the coca field," she said.
Betancourt was kidnapped in southern Colombia on February 23rd 2002, along with her campaign manager Clara Rojas during her longshot bid for the Colombian presidency as a green party candidate.
She said she emerged from her ordeal "more humane," though her return from captivity was initially tough because "you return to a world in which you no longer belong."
Betancourt has given up Colombia's political arena, preferring to focus her energy on her human rights foundation.
But she sparked controversy and outrage among Colombians following her release when she sought compensation from the government over her kidnapping, accusing the state of failing to protect her.
"This affair hurt me a lot. I thought that it was very unfair. I felt that it was very spiteful," said Betancourt, who eventually gave up her legal bid.
"It prolonged the time I needed to get myself back together."
Betancourt now hopes the government's peace talks with the FARC, which began six months ago, will bring an end to the conflict that has left 600,000 people dead and more than 3.7 million displaced in 50 years.
"Forgiveness is obviously a central element, but not forgiveness in the form of charity," she said. "We are all, in Colombia, responsible for this horrible war. We are all part of a generation that, with forgiveness, must assume this responsibility."
The two sides struck a first deal last month related to the thorny issue of land reform, but other sticking points — like allowing rebels who repent to avoid to jail — still have to be resolved.
Despite the misery she endured in captivity, Betancourt voiced support for suspending jail sentences.
"We can't continue with a justice of vengeance. Peace will require us to accept a certain degree of impunity, it's inevitable," she said.
A Gallup Colombia poll, however, showed that 80 percent of people were opposed to amnesty for the rebels in return for their participation in political life.
Betancourt remembered that the FARC commander who held her prisoner was quite brutal. He was captured during her release and has been in jail for the past five years.
Would she forgive him?
"Life gave him the possibility to understand what he made us go through since he's now a prisoner, like we were," she said. "If I had him in front of me, I would simply hug him."