Rare look at a camp belonging to fighters in what could be their last days there before a landmark peace deal is signed.
Bogota, Colombia – Since the beginning of peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government, few journalists have had access to rebel camps.
Their political leaders in Havana, Cuba, have spoken almost daily through the advances – and the many hiccups – in the talks, but we heard precious little from the commanders and foot soldiers holding out in the jungle.
That’s why we were particularly intrigued when we managed to access one. We wanted to know how they were living through what most likely will be the last months of the longest-standing rebel group in the Americas.
Many Colombians continue to be sceptical about the peace talks. And one could say: rightly so.
FARC has negotiated with the government on three previous occasions and every time it ended in complete failure.
Furthermore, for those who live in the “modern” Colombia of hip Bogota or Medellin, the conflict has become little more than a nuisance. Something that is happening far away, in a different world. However, it’s consequences are deeper and wider than many acknowledge.
And the truth is that there is reason for optimism, reason to think that this time it will be different.
First of all, FARC leaders now admit their goal of taking power by force has become impossible to achieve. And however tentatively they have said that, the time for armed struggle is over.
The rebels have also been badly hurt by successful military campaigns (aided by billions of US dollars) and suffered mass desertions.
The international environment surrounding the talks has also changed completely. From the US, to Venezuela, to Cuba – everybody wants peace to happen, for a range of different reasons.
This said, the guerrillas we encountered feel far from defeated. They are defiant about their struggle and want a negotiated solution to step out of the jungle and into the legal political field.
They still present themselves as undefeated rebels wrestling a corrupt oligarchy in the cause of social justice.
We were lucky enough to speak to a dozen commanders of FARC’s Eastern Bloc, the rebels’ strongest military faction and one of the blocs that has been most deeply involved in the drug trade, according to Colombian authorities.
All insist on the seriousness of the process in Havana and how they expect to turn into a legal political party that could have influence over regions of Colombia where the government has traditionally been absent.
Their biggest worry seems to be their security and that of their troops. They are wary to give up their guns unless they have guarantees that the government will protect them from paramilitary groups and organised crime.
This is not surprising. When FARC formed a legal political party as part of previous peace talks in 1984, more than 3,000 members of the party were murdered. Many had never been fighters and were just “guilty” of being communists.
The commanders also say they are willing to take responsibility for the “errors” committed during this long conflict.
What they call “errors” are often serious human rights violations. But they insist that when incidents happened, these were unfortunate consequences of the war, not premeditated or systematic actions.
Regardless, there’s no doubt they are not the only culprits in this story. The bulk of the violations have been committed by paramilitary groups, often aided by state forces.
That’s why the route to a “transitional justice” that the negotiators have agreed on is paramount. It strikes a delicate balance between truth, justice and reparations. It involves all sides of the conflict.
Those who will take responsibility for their crimes and reveal the full truth will receive alternative sentences of five to eight years outside of traditional prison settings.
Guerrillas, soldiers and politicians who refuse to cooperate risk prison sentences of up to 20 years if found guilty of war crimes.
Which leaves us with the thousands of foot soldiers still holding out in the organisation. Almost all of them entered FARC as teenagers and have known nothing else.
Most of them will receive a form of amnesty. The government hopes to gather them in secure areas and assist them with housing and counselling.
For the time being they are receiving daily classes on the peace negotiations and are starting to learn what peace might entail from their commanders.
Those who never had proper education are also taking courses in maths, grammar, and philosophy, among other subjects.
If you ask the young rebels, they’ll tell you they are not particularly worried about going back into society or about the discrimination they might face once they give up their weapons.
They are convinced they will continue to be part of the FARC “family” – still revolutionaries, just without weapons.
Nobody at this point can tell how this will exactly work. What’s clear is that signing a peace deal will be just a first step to tackling the many problems of the forgotten, poor, and conflict-ridden rural Colombia.
Additional note – During our stay in the camp the rebel commanders asked us repeatedly to promise we would address one of their specific requests at the talks. We didn’t feel it was part of our coverage but I’ll mention it here.
For the sake of the peace process, the rebels are demanding that the US frees Simon Trinidad, one of their top political leaders.
He has been held for seven years in solitary confinement at the Florence Supermax prison in Colorado. He played a significant role in setting up the peace talks before being captured and extradited on charges of kidnapping Americans and drug trafficking.
For the past three years, the guerrillas have kept an empty seat at the negotiating table waiting for his return. He is currently serving a 60-year sentence.