Escaping the atrocities in the jungles of Colombia

Suzy Madigan meets the ex-Farc guerillas trying to stop children joining a brutal war

It is Christmas and Colombian soldiers are abseiling from Blackhawk helicopters into jungle controlled by the rebel group Farc. Their unlikely mission is to install a 75ft tree festooned with movement-sensitive lights. The attached message reads: "If Christmas can come to the jungle, you can come home."

This is the conciliatory face of the government's two-pronged policy aimed at ending Colombia's decades long civil war. Guerrillas who choose to lay down their arms receive amnesty and a reintegration package, as long as they have committed no war crimes.

A few months earlier in the same area, the army demonstrated the alternative. In "Operation Sodom", 72 planes obliterated the camp of Mono Jojoy, the group's second in command. Seven hundred special armed forces zip-lined in to meet survivors. For many insurgents, life in the jungle is increasingly unattractive.

Created by Marxist peasants in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is one of the world's most enduring guerrilla movements dedicated to overthrowing the country's elected government. The group has turned to the drugs trade to finance its struggle. Despite falling support and a government crackdown – with the army committing its share of rights violations – it has endured in a society where wide economic inequalities remain.

Raul is a demobilised guerrilla who joined when he was 15, but left after nine years. "I believed in the ideology at first," he says. "But the drug-trafficking, the massacres and the displacement made me lose faith in it all."

Raul is a paragon in a reintegration process viewed critically by victims who receive a fraction of the support given to ex-combatants. Now 29, he volunteers with a group of former fighters who try to prevent youngsters from joining armed drug gangs or the Farc. These former guerillas speak frankly and in the language of the barrio (neighbourhood). In one of Bogota's poorest districts, Raul addresses a crowd in the community hall.

"Guys join because they love weapons," he says. "When I was a kid I loved Rambo movies. I bought my first gun at 11, and my friends and I called ourselves Los Raspachinas (coca leaf pickers). The cops wouldn't enter the neighbourhood so we ran the place." There are smirks of recognition among the teenagers.

"You join the guerrilla thinking you're going to be the big man. You get 12-year-old kids showing up wanting a gun. But when they see their first dead comrade, or someone gets their leg blown off they realise it's not a game. Then it's too late. Once you're in, there are three ways to leave: die of old age, with a bullet through your head, or as a paraplegic."

Recruits must place loyalty to the Farc above everything. In Colombia, family is the foundation of a society which puts little faith in other institutions. The strength of the family therefore presents a threat to the guerrillas who strategically attack family bonds to eliminate competition. "They send sons to kill their parents and destroy the family unit. They say, 'Your mother is informing for the army. You don't have parents anymore. In the Farc, you stay in the Farc. We're your family.'"

Next to Raul, Javier nods. As a Farc rebel stationed in the city, he was gunned down in the street by a paramilitary death-squad.

In the Seventies, right-wing militias emerged in response to the leftist guerrilla threat. Sustained by networks of wealthy landowners, drug-dealers and the army, these paramilitaries mutated into a deadly force committing atrocities with impunity and dispatching civilians with greater brutality than the Farc.

Javier, now partially deaf and paralysed from the waist down, started the educational project to dissuade teenagers from repeating his mistakes. "You get a gun, you get power," he says. "The reality is you end up either dead, in prison or in a wheelchair like me."

Javier and Raul direct their message at young men and women. Estimates suggest one-fifth of Farc guerrillas are women, for whom life can be particularly tough. Foot soldiers do nothing without authorisation, whether sleeping, using the toilet or having sex. When a man receives permission to sleep with a woman, a nurse checks she is not fertile based on her menstrual cycle. Unsurprisingly, accidental pregnancies are common. They are also potentially fatal. Babies are taken from the mother and given to a campesino family. That's if she's lucky, says Raul. Others will undergo a forced termination. "They do abortions in a tent in the jungle removing the foetus with sticks. Women often get infections and some lose their womb. They are punished for getting pregnant."

Maria gave birth to five children in the jungle when she was a Farc guerilla. Recently demobilised, the 35-year-old has come to a centre offering security advice to former combatants receiving death threats. After 18 years of fighting, Maria ran away to find her children. Unlike Javier and Raul she did not become an insurgent by choice, but because she lived in Farc-controlled territory. "I joined because there it was the law of the guerrilla." The rebels arrived at her house one day and demanded three of the five siblings leave with them. "They threatened to kill the whole family. I was one of the eldest so I agreed to go."

Escaping the Farc requires enormous courage. Many of the recent military gains achieved by the Colombian army, such as the attack on Mono Jojoy's camp, are due to information from former insurgents. The Farc, therefore, kill any deserters they catch. Even in the reintegration programme the lives of former combatants can be in danger. Maria has been reunited with her family, but in sprawling Bogota, a city of seven million people, she lives in fear. "I'm receiving death threats on my phone. I don't think they know where I am, but they have people everywhere."

Despite the risks, some women join voluntarily. Some view it as a means to achieve equality and respect; others, such as Diana, are driven by Colombia's cycle of violence and revenge. In a remote mountain village where she now lives, she relates how Farc rebels forcibly recruited her two young brothers and murdered her father. "I joined to find the man who shot him," she said. "My father was a humble, good man." The guerrilla's moved her to a different bloc before she could kill her father's killer.

After Diana demobilised, Farc guerrillas punished her by killing her sister. The support she receives in the reintegration programme has helped. "I feel more at peace now. If I live with hate in my heart, the same things will happen again. We have my sister's four orphans and we give them love. Maybe one day we'll find her body. But God is the only one who can punish these people."

Names have been changed to protect people's identities.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor