Hopes and fears as FARC prepares for peace

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Colourful articles of clothing break the endless green of the Antioquian jungle in central Colombia. In the past this improvised clothes line would have triggered an army bombardment on the Bloque Magdalena Medio’s central camp. The bilateral ceasefire between the government and FARC, agreed on 23 June, has brought calm to these guerrillas, who still maintain the habits of a nomadic past, marked by 52 years of war.

“We covered our tents with leaves, we moved on a daily basis. Sometimes we would go several days without water” recalls César Augusto Sandino – all the names are aliases – talking about the difficult conditions in what they considered a fight for justice: “We have no regrets because our fight was never against the civilian population”, although he does concede that “there were errors that led to unpremeditated deaths” in a conflict that has left over 220,000 dead, 81 per cent of whom were civilians.

Some of the leaders of the farianos (members of FARC) justify the things they are accused of, such as links with drug trafficking. “Someone who is not prepared can be distracted from their cause with a little money, but not the whole organisation” says the 56-year-old veteran (27 of them in FARC).

Drug trafficking was one of the sources of revenue for the FARC, together with extortion and kidnappings (the latter is one of the only methods for which the FARC have publicly apologised – mid-September, the FARC said they were sorry for the "great suffering" they inflicted.)

On the recruitment of minors – a practice that has been denounced for decades by several international organisations, such as UNICEF, as a serious violation of the rights of the child – Sandino argues that “it protects children and keeps them away from the violence”. FARC consider children have reached adulthood at the age of 15, but they have complied with the government’s demand to release these minors – 21 of them according to the FARC and 170 according to the government – and began the process in mid-September.

Alejandra and Johairo are two cases in point. Like most members, they joined while they were still minors. The couple are resting under one of the camouflage tarpaulins in one of the huts where they sleep. “Coming from a rural farming community, we had no other option but to enlist, because of the repression we suffered”, says the 19-year-old (four years in FARC).

The couple dream of having a family, but, says the young man: “We will have to see what role the new party forsees for us”. The demobilisation of nearly 8,000 combatants, begins after the signing of the peace agreement on 26 September, in Cartagena de Indias, with heavy security watching over a large gathering of Latin American presidents and representatives of international organisations. But the insurgents’ cause is still top of Johairo’s personal aspirations.

 
From guerrilla group to political party

The transformation from a guerrilla group to a new political party is a challenge for the organisation. “We are not afraid of getting involved in politics, because we have always been on the side of the people, helping them to organise. Nor are we afraid of civilian life, because we will all return to the rural communities that we came from” says 23-year-old Ramiro (four years in FARC) optimistically. As part of their daily tasks, the insurgents grow sugar cane, yuca and some vegetables. “We don’t grow enough for our own consumption, but it means we maintain the skills we need for rural life” points out the young man.

Reintegration is however one of the biggest post-conflict challenges. “Many of the former guerrillas don’t like to see themselves as killers. They do not renounce their past, and they still believe they were doing the right thing” says Juan Esteban Ugarriza, a researcher into the symptoms of the post-traumatic stress of living in a battle zone suffered by the majority of the almost 20,000 FARC members demobilised over the past decade. Rejected by their neighbours and sometimes even their own families, some of former combatants decided to move to Bogota and live anonymously, which Ugarriza believes makes their reintegration more difficult because they have no emotional ties.

This military past is again in evidence with the daily procession of 25 farianos, gun in hand. And it can be seen when they comply with orders sent from Havana by their commander in chief, Timoleón Jiménez: “Do not walk along the street armed or wearing uniform and do not entertain any form of provocation” urges a passage in the text. The road map for this delicate time requires maximum caution. The signing of the peace agreement will mark the start of the relocation to the 23 green zones where the process of handing in their weapons will begin. First there will be an amnesty for the insurgents, however, to guarantee their safety.

The process will culminate with the approval of the agreements by Colombians through a referendum on 2 October. “Whatever the result, we will go ahead. This is a political manoeuvre by the government” says Ramiro of the forthcoming vote that has polarised Colombian society, although in the last month support for “yes” vote has outweighed the “no” vote by 72 to 28 per cent according to the latest Ipsos poll in mid-September.

The guerrillas are preparing their own propaganda in favour of peace. “NOTHING for War, EVERYTHING for Peace” or “Hope is never lost”, are just some of the slogans sprayed and stencilled on the posters in one of the wooden barracks. “It is appalling that some people are still thinking of war after all the atrocities and so much bloodshed” says Cornelio, one of the veterans.

“The opponents of peace are those who have not experienced the war, or who have benefitted from it” he adds, referring to the fierce opposition led by former right-wing president Álvaro Uribe who during his mandate (2002-2010) put maximum military pressure on the guerrillas through air strikes. It was also under his mandate that new paramilitary groups wreaked havoc among the civilian population.

 
Fear of the paramilitaries

“Our fear is that the ‘paracos’ (the disparaging term used to refer to those who tried to exterminate them: the paramilitaries) will take control. We hope the government will give them a hard time” says 19-year-old Adrián (three years in FARC), voicing one of the biggest concerns of the guerrillas about the peace agreement. The paramilitaries, a far-right group initially created to combat the rebels, has reorganised over the last two years around into clans linked to drug trafficking, intensifying their attacks.

The paramilitaries killed Andrés, a 15-year-old boy, presumably throwing his body into the Magdalena river in Puerto Boyacá, the paramilitaries’ fief. “Who am I going to forgive if I don’t know who killed him? (…) I only want them to give me back his remains so that I can bury him” cries Flor Hurtado, the mother of one of the 25,000 “disappeared”, who 14 years later still has to walk past his murderers in the street without being able to identify those directly responsible for his death.

The majority of victims are calling for a collective apology, including from FARC (for all crimes, not just for kidnappings), to achieve reconciliation, another of the major post-peace challenges. “We are going to ask forgiveness individually, like they did in Havana and here, but we won’t make a great spectacle of it” says Cornelio. So far, the FARC has expressed regret for the ’’great pain’’ it caused.

In the same river where Andrés disappeared, the farianos are bathing, men and women together in their underwear, and washing their clothes, finishing up their usual routine. On this Sunday night, the only day they allow themselves some fun, Adrián takes off his uniform and armband and sings a few rap tunes. Others dance vallenatos and cumbias around the same fireplace where in the past they would count up their losses and plan their battles.

“We are a family, it will be difficult to leave” says Sandino nostalgically, while contemplating the happiness of the youngest members, and adds “in a few days, this camp won’t exist anymore”.

The future of these guerrillas, who have spent most of their lives isolated in the jungle, lies somewhere between the hopes and uncertainty of returning to a society that for half a century suffered from the longest armed conflict in Latin America, which left some 6 million Colombians displaced internally, in addition to those who died, and a whole population of journalists, trade unionists and human rights defenders living in fear.

The scars on Sandino’s hand and wrist are a reminder of this time, as are his words. To awaken their comrades, the person on guard duty would walk between the huts imitating bird song, an old practice used to hide from the enemy. Soon this ritual start to the day will be swapped for the aseptic sound of the alarm clock.

 

This article has been translated from Spanish.