Between tears, Luis Manuel Diaz, father of Liverpool striker Luis Diaz, recounted Friday how he was made to walk “too much” with little sleep in the nearly two weeks he was held hostage in a mountainous area of Colombia by members of the ELN guerrilla group.
Diaz, finally liberated Thursday after calls from around the world for his freedom, told reporters at his home in the country’s north he went through a “very difficult” time, surviving “almost 12 days without sleep.”
Diaz’s wife Cilenis Marulanda, who was taken by the same ELN kidnappers on October 28 but rescued hours later, rubbed her husband’s back lovingly as he broke down in tears mid-statement.
Behind the pair hung a string of golden balloons spelling out “Welcome Mane,” his nickname, in Spanish.
Diaz walked with obvious difficulty as he arrived for the press conference, and had to be helped up from his chair afterwards and led away.
He told reporters he was not maltreated by his captors.
“I had to walk too much, up and down many mountains, trying to stay safe so that… I could return home,” said the 56-year-old, who is no stranger to the mountainous region he has explored since a child.
But “this was a different story,” he said Friday. “I would not want anyone to be in that mountain in the situation I was in.”
Footballer Diaz’s parents were abducted by armed men on motorcycles at a gas station in Barrancas, a town near the Venezuelan border.
Marulanda was rescued hours later and a massive search operation by ground and air was launched for her husband, with more than 250 soldiers involved.
The ELN, which is in peace negotiations with the government and is party to a six-month ceasefire that entered into force in August, described the kidnapping by one of its units as a “mistake.”
On Thursday, after days of intense negotiations, the rebels handed Diaz over to humanitarian workers at an undisclosed location in the Serrania del Perija mountain range, from where he was flown by helicopter to the city of Valledupar, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) from his hometown.
Hours later, he arrived by car to neighbors celebrating with drums and trumpet music outside his home, which was under police guard.
On Friday, Diaz told reporters he hoped his release was a step towards “peace in Colombia and so that everyone, and all the hostages, will have a chance to be free.”
The abduction threatened to derail high-stakes peace negotiations between the ELN and the government of leftist President Gustavo Petro.
Petro took office last August with the stated goal of achieving “total peace” in a country ravaged by decades of fighting between the security forces, leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug gangs.
More than 38,000 people have been kidnapped in Colombia over the years, mainly by armed groups raising funds with ransom money.
According to official data, the ELN still holds about 30 hostages.
Colombia’s rights ombudsman Carlos Camargo said Friday the practice must be stopped as part of “fixed conditions” for successful peace talks.
But an ELN leader who goes by the name Antonio Garcia said on X, formerly Twitter, the organization “will not accept conditions or blackmail.”
Luis Manuel Diaz is the founder and amateur coach of the only football academy in Barrancas, where his son showed promise from a very young age.
Diaz Sr. is credited with aiding the meteoric rise of his son who has played for his country 43 times and is the first Indigenous Colombian to make it to world football’s top echelons.
Acquaintances have told AFP he sometimes sold food he cooked himself to pay for his son’s trips to Barranquilla, the city where he had his debut.
He later played for Porto and now for Liverpool.
The ELN, one of Colombia’s last recognized guerrilla groups, has some 5,800 combatants.