After more than half a century of fighting against the Colombian state, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) laid down its arms to become a political party after a peace deal was signed in 2016.
With the prospect of long-term peace, FARC is finally allowing its remaining 7,000 fighters to have children.
Both Diana and Yorly joined FARC as teenagers and will soon leave it as mothers. But as they prepare to welcome children into a new Colombia, their comrades are still being killed by paramilitaries.
By Lali Houghton
They were disconnected from Colombian society and using secret identities. At night all lights were banned as they became paranoid that electronic devices, or a simple match, could give away their coordinates and trigger an aerial attack. Now, after half a century of war, the truth about what life in the jungle for FARC fighters was like is beginning to come to light.
When we first approached this story we reached out to five of the 26 newly formed demobilisation camps set up around the country. Various news outlets had started picking up on a baby boom taking place, the result of the end of a ban on having babies during wartime. With their newfound freedom, the fighters were starting families.
We set out to find pregnant fighters with compelling stories. But owing to the general mistrust of the media, most of the women did not want to speak. And who could blame them? Mainstream media, especially Colombia’s leading newspapers, have mostly covered one side of the story, demonising FARC as a drug-funded “terrorist organisation” that mistreated its women fighters.
After careful deliberations, we finally found two pregnant women willing to tell their story. We received clearance from the FARC’s top brass, a seven-man secretariat composed of its chief commanders. Our challenge now was to see beyond the stereotypes and to challenge our own preconceptions.
There were always niggling questions: surely there was some truth to the stories of sterilisation and forced abortions? And how could our two guerrilla fighters justify the countless war crimes carried out in their name? These were questions not easily answered and perhaps more appropriate for their commanders.
Our two characters described very similar childhoods. They came from poor peasant households, had been victims of domestic violence and had been drawn to a guerrilla army that said it represented the country’s disenfranchised communities. Both women joined the FARC aged 13 and began receiving the basic education the state had failed to give them.
At no point was there a sense of the two women acting against their will. If anything, they were bound to the FARC by gratitude for what the movement had instilled in them: a sense of purpose. Both had trained as nurses and rarely saw conflict until the bombs started raining down on the camps from 2004 onwards.
FARC did many things that were inconvenient. We have asked for forgiveness and will do so until the very last moment. It hurts us because we also lost family members
Trenches were built. Fellow comrades were maimed or killed. The true horror of war began encroaching on their existence. Diana remembered in tears a New Year’s Eve in the jungle when they huddled together and celebrated another year of life. Who can blame these young women for wanting a different future when so many past generations had failed to bring peace to the table?
And yet these women have not forgotten why they were fighting in the first place and remain deeply mistrustful of the peace deal. The fear remains that now that their arms have been handed over, their former enemies will seek them out.
Since the peace treaty began, several FARC members and more than 100 community leaders have been murdered in Colombia, enforcing the idea that right-wing paramilitary groups are muscling into areas formerly controlled by FARC. The true picture of post-conflict Colombia has yet to materialise.
We did get some answers to our niggling questions. The two women we profiled had previously had an abortion in the jungle. The mere idea of having a baby during wartime was unthinkable. And as for FARC’s war crimes, Yorly had prepared a response:
“Really no one is perfect, we all have our errors. FARC did many things that were inconvenient. We have asked for forgiveness and will do so until the very last moment. It hurts us because we also lost family members. It hurts us bad.”
FARC now embarks on a new path as a political party with perhaps a rather unduly name. They have retained the same FARC acronym but with a different meaning: the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. Yet with so many in Colombia unwilling to forgive and forget one begs to wonder if the name will haunt them for years to come.