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the globe in colombia

After years of bloody conflict between FARC and government forces, two former fighters are trying to find peace as civilians. Stephanie Nolen reports

Former FARC guerrillas Nasly Rodriguez and Gregory Villarraga – shown at a Bogota art gallery with their baby daughter, also named Nasly – are among the many families who have had to adapt to new jobs and new lives after the rebel group’s demobilization last year.Carlos Villalon/The Globe and Mail

Gregory Villarraga and Nasly Rodriguez were buying groceries one day not long ago when a supermarket clerk suggested they sign up for a store credit card that offered discounts. They agreed, and started the simple application – but almost immediately, there were questions that they couldn’t answer. They abandoned the form and left the clerk puzzled.

“What were we supposed to write for credit history?” Mr. Villarraga asked with a short, sharp laugh, telling the story a few days later. “Or for employment?” He began to riff on the answers they might give: We’ve been in the jungle waging a war for 20 years; we’ve never had a bank account because the guerrilla supplied our food and our clothes and books; which of our half-dozen aliases would you like to use?

They didn’t write down any of that in the supermarket, and they didn’t tell their landlord, either, when they rented a small apartment in Bogota, the capital. They do not lie when they’re asked – they are fiercely proud of the war they fought – but it’s not an easy thing to bring up, when the name FARC comes soaked in so much history and mistrust. “You just don’t know how people are going to react,” Mr. Villarraga said.

In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish), weakened by a years-long military offensive and offered a dignified end to its fight, signed a peace deal with the government of Colombia.

With the end of the 53-year war, former combatants had the chance to meet up with family members they had not seen in decades. But even with family, Ms. Rodriguez says, they don’t have much to say; when you’ve been in the guerrilla for 20 years, it’s hard to chat to people who don’t know that life.

Ms. Rodriguez, 39, was a dentist, and Mr. Villarraga, 40, was a communications specialist, when they were in the bush with the FARC. Today, they both have new jobs at the headquarters of the reincarnated FARC, the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force, a Marxist political party. And they have demobilized in the city, which comes with a particular set of challenges: the existential ones, such as how much to reveal about their old lives, and the more basic, such as how the bus system works.

They are among 12,400 former FARC fighters who demobilized last year and are building new lives. It’s not a huge number of people in a country of 50 million, but the success or failure of this project has taken on new urgency as other guerrilla organizations, and dissident FARC members who did not accept the peace and did not demobilize, continue to destabilize large areas of the country.

  • Monica Gomez, the civilian wife of a former FARC guerrilla, is shown at a demobilization camp in Monterredondo, Colombia, where hastily constructed dormitories are home to dozens of ex-fighters and their families.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

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FARC leaders say that the government has been too slow to disburse promised funds and risks driving former fighters who were committed to peace into the clutches of other breakaway fighter organizations or even organized crime.

Before the peace deal, many Colombians were doubtful that the FARC would or could make this transition to civilian life – that mistrust contributed to the defeat of the accord when it was first put to a referendum in 2016. But this transition has gone better than might have been expected. A year ago, FARC fighters gathered at designated points in areas they once controlled and began to hand over their weapons.

Almost all of those who opted to demobilize have been registered for national identity documents and the state social-services system. They have been given access to health care and education; many joined the guerrilla as children – some forcibly recruited – and never got past second or third grade. At the transition camps, they can earn high-school equivalency and take life-skills classes, such as learning how to manage a bank account, how to vote and how to use a computer.

Most have been granted amnesties. FARC leaders will face a special tribunal that will soon start trials, and if they are judged to have been fully honest about their activities, including crimes against humanity, they will face punishments centred on restriction of their movements, but no jail time.

Demobilized fighters are receiving a monthly grant – 90 per cent of a minimum-wage salary – that they will get for two years. A key component of the peace deal is a rural-development program with a focus on land redistribution and titling, meant to address some of the historical inequities that the FARC said drove them to take up arms in the first place. But the FARC’s withdrawal created a power vacuum that other armed actors have rushed to fill. In many regions that FARC once controlled, there is still active conflict under way, which makes it difficult to start development projects.

The FARC leadership has accused the government of doing too little to secure those areas and also of stalling a transfer of funds (about US$2,700 to each ex-fighter) that were promised to help them build “productive projects.”

In Monterredondo, former FARC fighters are working with civilian neighbours to make and sell “demobilized guerrilla” dolls. It’s one of the few ways they have of earning a living, as they try to figure out how they can adapt to the regular economy.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Rodrigo Rivera, the government’s commissioner for peace, said the delay is deliberate. The national agency charged with helping demobilized fighters reintegrate has considerable experience, he said – it has worked with more than 50,000 former right-wing paramilitaries and members of other disbanded leftist guerrilla groups. The agency has learned the importance of first boosting education levels, particularly in basic math, and providing some job training. “And then [the former fighters] are going to be able to receive the money,” he said. But FARC leaders have done “intermediated messaging” and created false expectations among former fighters that they would immediately receive their cash, he said.

However, Victoria Sandino, a senator who holds one of the 10 seats the FARC was guaranteed in Congress for 10 years, suspects there is more at work. “We want a collective reintegration … we come from a collective life, and what we want is not to just throw people out there,” she said. She says the government is pushing demobilized fighters toward individual projects – such as driving a taxi or opening a shop, instead of setting up collective farms or commercial enterprises – in order to weaken the organization.

The loss of the collective is just one of the strange adjustments for former combatants in both rural and urban areas. The majority of former FARC fighters are still housed in special transitional camps that were set up around the country. In Monterredondo, a couple of hours from the city of Cali in the southwest of the country, about 110 ex-fighters and their families are living in hastily constructed dormitories built around blocks of kitchens and toilets.

A former FARC fighter washes a motorcycle in Monterredondo, home to a transitional camp for some 110 ex-guerrillas and their families.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

A Colombian soldier keeps watch at the edge of the camp. Fear of revenge killings, or attacks by right-wing paramilitaries, was a major preoccupation for the FARC before demobilization. Dozens of former fighters have been killed since the peace deal, most outside these camps.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

A former FARC fighter surveys the landscape in Monterredondo, near the southwestern city of Cali.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

For Sebastian Beltran, who is just 21 but spent nearly a decade at war, the first weird thing was sleeping indoors. He doesn’t know where he will go when his year at the camp is up. “My family was the organization,” he said, while he gently steered another ex-fighter’s toddler son through a wobbly game of football. “I grew up in the FARC.” Mr. Beltran opted not to go back to school, and instead got a job picking coffee on a local farm, where he earns $10 a day. “It’s not a dignified job or a dignified life,” he said. But it’s the job he could get: campesinos, subsistence farmers like the family he comes from, know the FARC and don’t mistrust them, he said – but no former fighter is going to get an office job. But for all that, he said, he can’t complain. “You can’t be ungrateful: I like everything about it.” Mostly, he said, it’s simply a relief to feel safe.

Former FARC guerrilla Sebastian Beltran, 21, found it strange to sleep indoors after the transition to civilian life. He joined the FARC when he was 12.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

A key FARC fear before the peace deal was that the demobilized fighters would be targets for revenge killings and assassinations by right-wing paramilitaries, who have only grown in power since the peace deal. Mr. Rivera said the government is pleased with how well the soldiers and national police deployed have managed to protect the FARC. But at least 60 have been killed since the deal was signed, including three who were murdered near here in late May.

“I’m not saying the government is organizing to kill us, but they are not preventing it from happening and not investigating when it does happen,” Ms. Sandino said. “There is total impunity.”

The slow movement on the economic program also raises fears that some demobilized fighters might slip away from the camps and join up with a dissident FARC splinter group, or another leftist guerrilla organization such as the ELN, or one of the criminal gangs that are battling for control of former FARC narco-trafficking and illegal mining businesses – and looking for hired guns. They are rumoured to be paying “signing bonuses” of about US$6,000 to new recruits. That’s a fortune, when ex-FARC in the camps are earning $8 a day as maids or farm workers.

Richard Jimenez, a 27-year veteran of the FARC, has struggled to find work and says he doesn’t think the Colombian government is honouring its commitments.Christian EscobarMora/The Globe and Mail

Richard Jimenez, 40, spent 27 years in the FARC; he welcomed the peace, he said, but it’s been a bitter disappointment. “The government has resources, but they don’t give them,” he said, listing off international donations to fund the peace deal. “Why do you think there are dissidents? The government is not fulfilling their commitments like they are supposed to; if they had, everyone would have moved on. But what they promised us is not what we got; it’s very different.” He’s been applying for jobs, in offices, construction firms and auto-body shops – all fruitlessly – and said he had no idea how he will survive when the monthly stipend runs out late this year. In one breath, he said he couldn’t imagine taking up arms again – “I have a son, it’s different now” – but in the next, he said, “I’d go back to the FARC … We’re hoping and waiting to see what happens.”

Ms. Sandino said she believes few will make the choice to join the dissidents or other armed groups. “I know that most of our people are determined to keep going forward: Even the youngest have at least 10 years of history of war, so they know what war is, they know war is something terrible, not something to play with, that it’s very painful and going back to war in these conditions, when we have left our weapons, is not a possible future. It’s not a revolutionary fight we can proceed with.” Many former fighters already have new babies, she said. “They want to live with their children and make a new life.”

Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Villarraga were among many FARC fighters who had children after the peace deal. FARC’s policies prevented active fighters from having children. ‘We wouldn’t be having babies if we weren’t committed to peace,’ Ms. Rodriguez says.Carlos Villalon/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Villarraga and Ms. Rodriguez had a child six months ago, a dark-eyed girl named for her mother. They bring her to work, at the main FARC office (so many guerrilla have had babies that the FARC canteen feels like a daycare, with prams parked between tables and hungry wails from every corner), and her doting father totes her in and out of meetings. The FARC had a policy of prohibiting its fighters from having children while they were active fighters (women were given mandatory Depo-provera injections), and so there has been a baby boom among the demobilized.

That, Ms. Rodriguez said, is one of the most tangible signs that no one is interested in going back to war: “We wouldn’t be having babies if we weren’t committed to peace.” But that doesn’t make civilian life any easier. Mr. Villarraga blends in on the streets of Bogota in a toque and a puffy jacket, a string of wooden beads around his wrist. Ms. Rodriguez carries a bit more of her past: She wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the face of Che Guevera on a recent afternoon, her red hair in a messy ponytail.

Unlike the guerrilla at the camp in Monterredondo, where most of the fighters are from farming families and had little chance at education, these two finished high school. They were drawn to the guerrilla because they were troubled by the inequities in Colombian society and thought only revolution could make things more equal. Now, they have to hope peace will do it. Many of their former colleagues are struggling to find work and figuring out how to pay the bills that mount up so quickly in the city, Ms. Rodriguez said. And they both feel it’s a waste: She can’t be a practicing dentist, because she did her training as a young rebel in Venezuela using her nom de guerre, and her diploma isn’t recognized. She said she knows doctors, engineers and nurses from the guerrilla in the same situation – unable to practice their professions, when Colombia is desperately short of professionals willing to work in the areas the guerrilla consider home.

“You feel a sense of impotence because you’ve got these skills, but you’ve hit the wall where you can’t develop,” Mr. Villarraga said. “We’ve got experience and discipline. Give us a goal and we do everything to achieve it. Do you want us to build a highway for a village? No problem … Who knows the country better than us? Make us cartographers and park rangers. There’s an enormous potential in the FARC.”

They appreciate waking up to calm each day; they aren’t seeing people they love die (each lost a sibling who fought with the FARC), and they aren’t killing people. They don’t live in perpetual expectation of the next bombing. They go into a café these days and see police sitting there: “In the field, you only saw them as an enemy, and now you look in their eyes and know we were all there simply because we were defending our different ideas,” Mr. Villarraga said.

But, Ms. Rodriguez added wistfully, there is also a loss of identity, a loss of purpose and a sense of uncertainty she finds hard to adjust to. They would like to be able to talk honestly about who they are and why they fought the war they did. “Up until now, people only heard one truth, which is that everything is our fault, we are narcoterrorists,” Mr. Villarraga said.

“Maybe,” Ms. Rodriguez added, “When our landlady asks us in three months, we’ll say we’re ex-combatants and she’ll know us and say, ‘Those people are not like we always heard.’”

Gregory Villarraga and Nasly Rodriguez, with baby Nasly, in Bogota. They are enjoying post-war life, but constantly gauging how much to say to people they meet about their former life as FARC fighters.Carlos Villalon/The Globe and Mail