The Yari Savannas, Colombia – After 52 years of war and displacement, the FARC and the Colombian government have signed a peace accord in the city of Cartagena that will begin the armed group’s transition into civilian life as a political party.
Often intractable negotiations between President Juan Manuel Santos’ delegation and the FARC’s secretariat in Cuba have borne fruit after four years. The treaty, sponsored by the guarantor states of Cuba, Chile, Venezuela and Norway, addresses issues ranging from the FARC’s long-standing land reform grievances to the prosecution of possible crimes against humanity.
Everything now hinges on a referendum scheduled for October 2 that will ask Colombians whether they want the Havana accords implemented.
But while the country witnesses the historic signing and the debate on the referendum sweeps the cities, thousands of FARC fighters remain in waiting across jungle encampments all over Colombia.
The 62nd of the Oriental Bloc have claimed the Yari Savannas in the department of Caqueta as their turf since their arrival in the 1960s.
Here, pockets of vertical jungle dot a vast sea of yellow wind-swept grass, connected by pontoon bridges and slick clay roads built by the FARC during the decades in which it has controlled the area.
The members of the 62nd are no longer patrolling for stalking enemies or sowing mines. In fact, they have spent the better part of two years averting combat as they cautiously awaited the outcome of the negotiations in Havana.
But they have maintained their discipline. Time once allotted to monitoring the savannas, launching surprise attacks, or advancing on the military’s far flung forward operating bases is now spent studying the accords and preparing for the transition. The manual “A New Day for Peace” is a staple in the fighters’ tents. Their only measureable victory is peace, it reads.
From her tent in one of the 62nd’s camps, Judi explains that the manual was sent to each unit to prepare the rebels for this very moment: the peaceful end to the world’s longest running conflict.
The fighters of the 62nd have a formidable reputation, having confronted the Colombian military many times over the past decade, but the truth is that many of them were victims before they were combatants: children orphaned by the conflict or those forcibly displaced by it.
Pablo comes from the conflict-stricken town of Jamundi, near Cali. As the oldest of four, Pablo was the head of his household while his parents migrated for work in the nearby cities. But although the family tried their hardest to avoid the war, the conflict came to them regardless when a neighbour told a paramilitary group that they had collaborated with the FARC. It wasn’t true, but that didn’t matter. One day after harvesting coffee in the hills of the Cauca Valley, Pablo came home to the scene of a massacre.
His house had been burned down; his three siblings killed.
Pablo fled and enlisted with the rebels some months later. His story is the norm, not the exception among the fighters of the 62nd.
Some say that they joined the FARC to seek revenge against those who had inflicted violence upon them and their families; others say they were drawn by its call to end the grinding inequality experienced by Colombia’s rural poor. They all say they were welcomed as though family.
Aurelio is a veteran unit commander of 20 years. He describes the FARC as more than just an army. In it, he and his comrades have learned how to read, write and do basic maths, he says.
They have also learned about Colombian history; about the murder of politician and populist movement leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948, about the birth of the FARC in the mountains of central Colombia and about the many failed peace talks that preceded this one.
Between issuing orders to the younger fighters, Aurelio also recalls the decades of daily lessons in jungle warfare that ensured they were ready for combat in this region’s difficult terrain. With a smile, he explains that his fighters epitomised the FARC’s ideal of an ideologically-driven mobile “guerrilla” unit: the 62nd moved freely between the hinterlands of three departments – Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare – and was always ready to fight, he says.
But now, as his fighters wait to be demobilised after decades of conflict, many questions remain unanswered: how will they return to civilian life; can they be protected from the paramilitary groups that have long opposed them; what of those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD; and will the electorate embrace the FARC’s political successor? There is an air of uncertainty but also optimism among the 62nd as they wait in the jungle, primed not for battle but for the final call for peace.
Here, they discuss the lives they are preparing to leave behind and their hopes for the future, the relief and fear that comes with letting go of their rifles and the feelings of guilt at having lived to see the end of the war.
The waning days of the FARC reveal a disarmingly mundane life of sport, study and contemplation for men and women who have been ready to sacrifice all for a revolution that never came to fruition. The 62nd’s last march through the plains that once rang with the clangor of combat will end with the quieting of their rifles.
Olga heads out to patrol the encampment – quite possibly for the last time.
An announcement from her commanders in Havana had just declared that the peace accords were nearly finalised. The government and the rebels had agreed to all terms to end hostilities.
Commander Arnulfo, who joined the FARC aged 13, is now 40.
“The state failed me and my family,” he says.
“We were surrounded by the conflict, so I enlisted. My hope is that for the good of our people, the rural class of this country, that this is the end of the war between Colombians.
“We’ve always wanted peace; we aren’t monsters or bandits. Our struggle will go on through elections.”
Yoli, a pregnant fighter, reads El Tiempo in dismay: [Former President] Uribe wants to go back to war, says Santos.
The front page is splashed with the word “Peace” in bold red letters, referring to the public debate over whether to sign the accords.
Regarding the opposition to the peace deal, Yoli sighs and says: “I don’t think they understand that ending the war isn’t a victory for us – it’s a victory for all of Colombia.”
Different squad commanders from the 62nd front plan the next day’s activities.
The Yari Savannas have been under FARC control since the 1960s. Incursions made by armed drug traffickers, paramilitaries and the Colombian military failed to wrest control of the area.
The front and the rest of the organisation considered the sweeping flatlands and the surrounding mountains to be the FARC’s heartland.
Jessica gets ready in her tent before heading out to meet her squad.
She joined early due to family ties to the FARC and rose quickly through the ranks after FARC patriarch, Jorge Briceno, singled her out as a natural leader.
She led her troops into combat across Meta and Caqueta, fighting as fiercely as “anyone ever did”.
She welcomes the peace process and the coming return to civilian life because this war, says Jessica, wilts everything.
Carlos extends to intercept the ball during a volleyball match with civilians just outside the front’s encampment.
The fighters of Yari were seamlessly integrated with local communities; many of the fighters were born in nearby villages.
The families of Yari lived under the laws of the FARC and shared the burden of cohabiting in the remote Savannas alongside the group.
Jayme combs her hair at the end of the day.
The picture on the back of her mirror is of Beatriz, a comrade who was killed in a military bombing. Looking over the image of her dead friend, Jayme says: “She was my mentor. Beatriz took me under her wing when I joined the fighters. It’s hard for me to know that she won’t be here for when peace comes. That’s why I carry her with me everywhere I go.”
Pablo shaves at the stream that runs through the camp. He explains why so many Colombians rose up in insurrection.
“The truth is most of us are victims one way or another. Racism, sexism, massacres, dispossession, displacement – all destroyed our lives,” he says.
“What the FARC did was empower us: Pick up a rifle, stop being a victim and fight back.”
Patricia, 19, in full kit, brandishes her customised AK-47. After demobilising, she hopes to move somewhere with her squad mate, Chary; she can’t imagine splitting up with the comrade she loves like a sister.
Patricia wants to start her formal education and, when the time comes, visit the biological family she abandoned when she joined the FARC.
Two 18-year-old fighters take a break in between studies to play chess in the camp’s classroom. With the conflict coming to an end, the rebels spend their time studying the accords, learning their rights and thinking about what they will do once the war is over.
The plan many are set on is earning a formal education and supporting the FARC’s political ambitions. Most have no intention, however, of dropping their identities as members of the FARC after demobilisation.
Estefany joined the FARC when she was 10 after the conflict swept through her village and left her orphaned. She believes that joining the rebels saved her life
At 15, a bullet tore through her shoulder during combat. With tears in her eyes, Estefany remembers how she tattooed herself with a twin heart in memory of the comrades who were lost in that encounter.
“This is not a surrender. We never gave up ground to the enemy. Our structure is merely changing our weapon from rifles to elections. Our political project will persevere,” says Commander Raul. But his speech is interrupted by one of the fighters: “What if we don’t win any elections and the struggle just ends in shambles?”
Raul presses his hands on the desk, draws a cautious breath and looks straight into the crowd of 70 or so fully uniformed combatants. “Then we respect the will of the people,” he says.