Following the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, on 26 September, in Cartagena (Colombia), and the agreement’s (expected) endorsement by the Colombian people in the referendum to be held this Sunday, 2 October, (note from the editor: this article was published before the referendum, which was surprisingly won by the opponents to the current peace deal) the guerrilla fighters will abandon their camps and begin the process of demobilising and disarming.
The ceasefire of recent months has given breathing space to the 35 members of the central unit of the Magdalena Media Bloc in the jungle in Antioquia, central Colombia, a unit that, until not so long ago, spent its life fleeing bombardment.
They go about their day-to-day life at an easy pace, whilst maintaining the habits expected of a military structure: the vestiges of the oldest guerrilla force in Latin America and of a conflict lasting over half a century, which claimed some 200,000 lives (81 per cent civilian) and led to almost 6 million forced displaced (as a result of the actions of paramilitary groups, guerrillas, state military forces and non-identified armed groups).
Photo reporter and journalist Aitor Sáez goes deep into the Colombian jungle to learn about the hopes and fears of the FARC foot soldiers regarding their future lives as civilians and in the structure of the new political party (which has not yet been named) that the FARC will be turned into as of May.
On Sunday, Colombians will give their “yes” or “no” to the complex peace agreement (that has already received the blessing of the international community, as well as the Colombian government and the FARC. A “yes” will enable the start of this transition.
Adrián (alias), aged 19, joined the FARC three years ago. Like many of his comrades, he was a minor when he joined and his life had been marked by the conflict. In his case, he was already scarred by the violence at birth. The black mark on his face was caused by the kickings given to his mother by paramilitaries while she was pregnant.
The guerrilla fighters share out the daily tasks on a rotating basis and without gender distinction. These include cleaning out the pigsty, planting crops, collecting firewood or, like this member, sweeping the never-ending leaves of the Colombian jungle.
The members consider this camp as a real home and their comrades as their family. Many are not in uniform, which used to be essential to avoid being detected by the army from the air.
Carlos, the only doctor in the camp, cleans his gun alongside other comrades. Despite the ceasefire and the approach of the referendum, the guerrilla fighters always load their AK47s, R15s and M16s, although, on orders sent from Havana by the leadership, they no longer carry arms when walking through the neighbouring areas inhabited by civilians.
Although the FARC has shown reticence towards the referendum, the fighters prepare posters and banners in favour of the peace agreement. “By different paths, firm in our conviction, peace is our dream” or “Your dream is coming true”, they write, among other slogans, using spray paint and stencils.
The latest polls give the “yes” vote a 20-point lead, but there is nervousness over the possibility of a “Colombian Brexit” – a drastic change in the final result owing to the high level of abstention expected.
The scars on César Augusto Sandino (the alias of a 56-year-old guerrilla fighter) have been left by the gunshot wounds he suffered during various clashes with the paramilitaries. The reorganisation of paramilitary groups (initially extreme right-wing formations created to combat the FARC guerrilla) into clans linked to drug trafficking is one of the FARC’s concerns of what may be to come after the signing of the peace agreement.
Some experts point to the possibility that a stronghold of dissident guerrilla fighters may end up joining the drug trafficking rings.
Before lining up for the daily roll call, the guerrilla fighters wash in the stream with canisters and bars of soap, which they also use to wash their clothes. Men and women in underwear share the improvised wooden washroom. They carry water from this same stream when the water pump breaks down.
The day ends with “cultural hour”, during which the guerrillas watch the evening news on Caracol TV, on the only television in the camp. It is a habit only changed by “guerrilla Sundays”, the day of the week dedicated to music and dance activities. Such festivities would have been unthinkable a year ago, since they would have undoubtedly led to bombing by the army.