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.

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