[News] Columbia - Life in a FARC Camp
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Sep 4 11:44:54 EDT 2007
Life in a FARC Camp
by Garry Leech / September 1st, 2007
We met two female members of the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the
pre-established rendezvous point deep in the
Colombian jungle. There we waited in a simple
two-room wooden shack, which served as the home
of a local peasant family. We sat there talking
and drinking coffee while one of the guerrillas
stood on the riverbank communicating through a
hand-held radio. Finally, having received the all
clear, which meant that there were no army
patrols on the river, the four of us climbed into
a canoe for the next stage of our journey. It had
taken Terry Gibbs and myself more than two days
to reach that point and we still had a short
river trip and a hike through the jungle before
we would finally arrive at the FARC camp that was our destination.
After an hour journeying deeper into the lush
green rainforest we pulled over to the riverbank,
climbed out of the canoe and walked down a narrow
path through the jungle to a small clearing. We
waited there while our two female guerrilla
guides stashed the canoe and its outboard motor.
When the two rebels returned to the clearing they
were each carrying two planks of wood measuring
six foot long, ten inches wide and two inches
thick. They insisted on also carrying our
backpacks for us. The sun was setting when we all
set off along a trail through the jungle on a one-hour hike to the FARC camp.
We stumbled and slid along the muddy path,
traversing streams on fallen logs with only the
narrow beams of our small flashlights to
illuminate the way. Miraculously, I managed to
avoid falling into the quagmire that passed as a
trail. Almost an hour into the hike I heard the
female guerrilla up front mumble something to a
shadowy figure in the darkness. A fully
uniformed, AK-47-toting male guerrilla then
greeted Terry and I as we passed him. I noticed a
small white light through the trees up ahead and
as we reached the perimeter of the camp saw a
uniformed man with a gray beard working on a
laptop computer. It was FARC commander Raúl
Reyes; a member of the rebel groups seven-person
Central Command. According to many analysts,
Reyes is the second-highest ranking member of the FARC.
Reyes greeted us both and after an introductory
conversation invited us to join him and several
other guerrillas for dinner. Afterwards, Terry
and I were shown to our bivouac, which consisted
of a bed with wooden planks for a mattress, a
mosquito net and a plastic camouflaged canopy
that hung above everything to provide protection
from the frequent tropical rains. Our bivouac was
identical to the ones used by the guerrillas in
the camp. For the next three days, Terry and I
lived as the guerrillas lived. We bathed with
them in a nearby stream. We went to the bathroom
in their rainforest latrines, which consisted of
trenches dug in the ground. And we all ate ample
servings of basic Colombian food.
Terry and I were at the remote FARC camp for
different reasons. She was there to interview
female guerrillas as part of her research on
women engaged in social struggle in Colombia. I
was there to interview Reyes. We were given free
rein of the camp and access to all the
guerrillas, about one third of whom were female.
We were also allowed to take photos with the
stipulation that we didnt publish the faces of
any of the rebels except Reyes. We also passed
many hours engaged in informal conversations with Reyes and other guerrillas.
Living conditions for the guerrillas were austere
to say the least. They consisted of the
aforementioned bivouac, two uniforms, a pair of
rubber boots, an AK-47 assault rifle, extra
cartridges of ammunition, a machete and three
meals a day. Despite the austerity, the camps
infrastructure was impressive given its remote
location. The bivouacs were interconnected with a
network of wooden walkways constructed several
inches above the wet, muddy ground. As few trees
as possible had been felled to make space for the
bivouacs and walkways in order to preserve the
rainforest canopy, no doubt to limit the possibility of detection from the air.
In the center of the camp was a large
wooden-framed, tent-like structure with sheets of
black plastic that served as a roof. Inside were
a dozen rows of benches constructed from wooden
planks similar to the ones our guerrilla guides
had carried to the camp. A television and
chalkboard were situated at one end of the
structure and each evening the guerrillas watched
the news on Caracol and RCNColombias two major
television networksin order to keep informed
about current issues. This activity was
particularly interesting given that the countrys
television networks generally presented a very negative portrayal of the FARC.
The wooden walkways extended beyond the center of
the camp in several directions, becoming wooden
steps whenever the path went up or down hills.
One walkway disappeared into the rainforest only
to terminate at the mens latrine. The word
latrine might be a bit elaborate given that it
only consisted of two trenches dug into the
ground. One was for urine and the other for
feces. A different walkway led to the womens
latrine, which consisted of the same facilities.
There were long sticks that were used to shovel
the red, clay-like mud back into the trench to cover up the human waste.
A third walkway led to the camps kitchen, which
was a large, open-sided structure that contained
two fires and lots of large pots and pans. The
cooks prepared three meals a day of basic
Colombian fare such as beef, chicken, rice,
potatoes, yucca, vegetables and lots of soup. One
afternoon, while Terry was interviewing female
guerrillas, I walked down to the kitchen and hung
out with the two rebels, one male and the other
female, who were on kitchen duty.
You all seem to eat well here? I said to them,
half as a question and half as a statement.
Youve come at a good time, explained the
female guerrilla. We have plenty of food right
now. Sometimes we dont have much to eat. How
often we get supplies depends on the weather and the security situation.
Do you two cook everyday? I asked them.
No, replied the male rebel. Everybody takes a
turn. We will cook dinner today and then
breakfast and lunch tomorrow. After that someone
else will take over and do the same.
So everybody cooks? I inquire. The men and the women?
Of course, the female guerrilla answered.
Everybody does everything in the camp. It
doesnt matter if you are a man or a woman. You
cook, you wash your own clothes, you stand guard,
and you go out on patrol. It is the same for men and women.
I had heard that this sort of equality was part
of the FARCs philosophy, but wasnt sure to what
degree it had actually been implemented. I still
wasnt sure to what degree it applied in other
FARC units throughout the country. However, there
was little doubt that the guerrillas in that
particular camp had achieved an impressive degree
of gender equality. It was not just evident in
their activities and words but, more importantly, in their way of being.
Surprisingly, for me at least, it was more
evident in the behavior of the men than the
women. The softness of the energy exhibited by
the male rebels towards their female colleagues,
their absolute lack of machismo, their acceptance
of them as equals, was actually quite astounding.
And for the women, they also exhibited many
feminine qualities for a group of females living
a traditionally male lifestyle. In fact,
maintaining their femininity was important to the
female guerrillas. During off-duty hours we often
observed female rebels getting together to apply
make-up or to braid each others hair. Evidently,
equality in that FARC camp was not about women acting like men.
Everyday in the late afternoon the guerrillas
went in groups to bathe. Terry and I would go
with a bunch of rebels shortly before dinner each
day. The wooden walkway wound its way through the
rainforest and down a hill to a small stream. The
rebels had built a dam across the stream that
allowed the fresh, clear water to flow over the
top of the twelve-inch high wooden structure,
through the ten foot long bathing area and then
over another dam before continuing its course
through the rainforest. Wooden floorboards were
placed in the bottom of the pool of water created
between the two dams to ensure solid, mud-free footing.
The male and female guerrillas stripped down to
their underwear and bathed together in the
shin-deep pool of water. They also hand washed
their clothes on a wooden table constructed along
one side of the pool. The guerrillas each had two
sets of camouflage uniforms and they washed one
each day, which then dried over the following
twenty-four hours while they wore the other one.
In one of our bathing sessions I attempted to
hand wash the pair of trousers that had gotten
muddy on the hike to the camp. A female guerrilla
who was bathing with us couldnt help but smile
at my ineptitude in the laundering department. A
male rebel took pity on me and taught me his
washing technique, which was surprisingly effective.
Everyday began at 4:50 am. Some rebels went out
on patrol and others stood guard around the
camps perimeter. Many of those who remained in
the camp engaged in education programs that
taught basic reading, writing and math. All the
guerrillas were peasants, some illiterate. The
better-educated rebels would be paired with the
less literate ones in order to provide them with
a basic education and to teach them the
fundamental concepts of Marxism. The pairs would
spend a couple of hours each afternoon engaging
in lessons. Some days the guerrillas engaged in
military training. After dinner, the rebels would
watch the news, engage in group discussions about
political and cultural issues, watch a movie and be in bed by 9:00 pm.
We were told that the rebel unit frequently moved
camp for security reasons. Such an operation
involved packing up everything, except the wooden
infrastructure, for the journey to another part
of the jungle where they would take out their
machetes and begin constructing a new camp.
Because they were all peasants, the rebels were
very adept with that ubiquitous tool of the
countryside, the machete. However, other skills
that the group required were not always so easy
to come by, such as medical care.
I asked one female rebel what happened when a
guerrilla became ill, or was injured or wounded.
There are always several guerrillas who can
apply basic medical care, she explained. And
these guerrillas pass this knowledge on to others
so each unit always has medics.
But what if the sickness or injury is serious
and requires extensive medical care, like surgery? I inquired.
Then the person is transported to one of the
FARCs hospitals, which are staffed by doctors.
For security reasons, it is preferred that they
dont go on such a journey unless it is absolutely necessary.
Where are these hospitals located, in villages
or in jungle camps like this? I asked her.
In camps like this, she replied.
Several of the guerrillas referred to their
cultural time on Sundays as an important part of
guerrilla life. During these sessions they would
engage in music, theatre and poetry readings,
with most of the art being inspired by their
revolutionary ideals. On our final afternoon in
the camp the guerrillas put on a cultural show.
We all gathered in the large structure for the
performance, which consisted of songs and skits
that were full of humor and political and social
commentary. One skit that several rebels
performed was a parody of beauty pageants, which
are extremely popular in Colombia. A male and a
female guerrilla held imitation microphones and
acted as the hosts of the pageant, which sought
to crown the new Señorita Colombia.
They first introduced the reigning champion, who
was an attractive female rebel dressed in a
halter-top and miniskirt with a cardboard crown
perched atop her head. She took her place at the
front of the room while the hosts introduced the
contestants seeking to become her heir. One by
one, the four contestants entered the room from
behind a curtain. They each paraded around the
inside perimeter of the structure in their skimpy
outfits as the audience cheered wildly. The
interesting catch was that all four were male
guerrillas dressed in drag and adorned with lipstick and makeup.
The hosts then asked the contestants questions
about what they would do if they were to be
crowned the new Señorita Colombia. When it was
his turn to answer, a short stocky mestizo rebel
who was Señorita Cauca replied, I would bring
about the New Colombia in which all Colombians
would be equal. His reference was to the
socialist society that the FARC has envisioned
and labeled the New Colombia. Clearly, in the
FARC, culture and politics are integrated.
The funniest moment in the show occurred when
Señorita Chocó, a tall thin black guerrilla with
a moustache, paraded around the structure
exhibiting exaggerated feminine mannerisms while
wearing a wig, a red bikini top and a blue
makeshift plastic mini-skirt. The skit ended when
the hosts asked Terry and I to select the new
Señorita Colombia. We agreed on Señorita Chocó.
The hosts then coaxed several male rebels into
dancing with the guerrillas in drag. The entire
skit was a parody on the sexist nature of beauty
pageants and the objectification of the female body.
There were a few older guerrillas in the camp who
had been members of the FARC for decades. Among
them were Reyes, who had been in the rebel group
for 26 years, and the oldest woman in the FARC,
who had been living in the jungle for 32 years.
Most of the guerrillas, however, were in their
twenties. Some of them were couples whose
bivouacs had been constructed with double beds.
Any two guerrillas who want to enter into a
relationship with each other have to obtain the
permission of their commander. This protocol is
similar to that in the US military where soldiers
posted overseas must obtain the permission of
their commanding officer before getting married.
FARC guerrillas also need to obtain permission to
end a relationship, although that is rarely denied.
The fact that the guerrillas are rotated in and
out of field units makes it difficult to maintain
long-term relationships. One morning I sat down
with a guerrilla couple in their bivouac to
discuss engaging in relationships under such conditions.
It is difficult because you never know when one
of you is going to be sent somewhere else,
explained an Afro-Colombian female guerrilla named Carmen.
The FARC tries to keep couples together whenever
it is possible, added her partner Osvaldo.
If you are separated is it possible to stay in
touch with each other? I asked.
No, not really. It is difficult, but thats just
the way it is, said Osvaldo, acknowledging that
commitment to the FARC and their revolutionary
cause is every guerrillas first priority.
Terry and I also engaged in many informal
conversations with Reyes and I conducted one
formal two-hour interview with the FARC
commander. During the informal conversations we
discussed a wide variety of topics related to
Colombia and the world in general. Some of the
conversations occurred during the meals that we
ate with Reyes. Other conversations were held
around the table in his bivouac, which was
situated at one end of the camp. The only
difference between Reyes living quarters and
those of the other guerrillas was that it
contained a table with wooden benches on each side and a laptop computer.
One topic of discussion was the possibility of a
prisoner exchange between the FARC and the US
government. More precisely, I asked about the
possibility of the rebel group exchanging the
three US military contractors that it was holding
captive for Simón Trinidad and Soñia, the two
FARC members imprisoned in the United States.
We cannot agree to such an exchange because we
are engaged in an internal conflict and so any
exchange would have to be between us and the
Colombian government, explained Reyes. We are
not at war with the United States and we dont
want to internationalize the conflict. And
besides, any humanitarian exchange would have to
include the release of all the guerrillas being held in Colombian prisons.
We also discussed the countrys new center-left
political party, the Democratic Pole. At one
point I asked Reyes if he thought there was any
possibility of the FARC negotiating peace with
the Democratic Pole should the party win the presidency in the 2010 elections.
It would depend on their policies, he replied.
Back in my bivouac I thought about the
accusations made by many analysts that the
guerrilla group is nothing more than a criminal
organization. These critics often claim that the
FARC was ideological many years ago but now is
only interested in profiting from its criminal
activities, which are primarily related to the
coca trade. Colombias President Alvaro Uribe has
repeatedly declared that there is not an armed
conflict in Colombia and that the government is
simply combating criminals who engage in
terrorism. Clearly these are efforts to
de-legitimize the FARC as a political entity.
The FARCs involvement in the coca trade and its
human rights abuses against civilians, including
kidnapping and the use of landmines and
notoriously inaccurate homemade mortars, have
made it easy for critics to simply dismiss the
rebels as criminals. However, the issue is not so
black and white, as illustrated by life in the
FARC camp. In fact, it is difficult to accept
such a simplistic analysis of the FARC given the
difficult life that the guerrillas live. After
all, unlike Colombian soldiers and paramilitary
fighters, the rebels do not get paid and they
receive no material benefits other than three meals a day.
And if guerrilla leaders like Reyes are little
more than the heads of a criminal organization,
then they must be considered miserable failures.
After all, other Colombian criminals live in
luxury. The leader of the former Medellín cocaine
cartel, Pablo Escobar, lived lavishly in
magnificent mansions, as have many other
Colombian drug traffickers over the past thirty
years. Paramilitary leaders have also lived well
on their vast cattle ranches in northern
Colombia, enjoying the riches wrought from their
criminal activities. And now they are
demobilizing so they can legally enjoy their ill-gotten wealth.
On the other hand, the FARCs leaders live as
Reyes lives. There appears to be no personal
monetary gain despite the guerrilla groups
financial wealth. It is a hard life spent
sleeping on wooden planks, bathing in rivers,
fighting off tropical diseases, and constantly
moving from camp to camp to avoid US intelligence
gathering efforts and the Colombian army. Reyes
has lived in the jungle in this manner for 26
years and the only comforts that he enjoys are a
laptop computer and the camps television. It is
hardly the lifestyle of a criminal whose
principal objective is the attainment of wealth.
After spending three nights in the camp, and with
our work completed, Terry and I awoke on our
final morning, packed our things and bid farewell
to the guerrillas. Along with our rebel guides,
we made the return trek through the rainforest to
the river and boarded a canoe. As we cruised
along the jungle river I thought about Colombias
future. After almost seven years of Plan
Colombia, five years of President Uribes
security policies and more than five billion
dollars in US military aid, there is no evidence
that the FARC has been significantly weakened
militarily. Consequently, with the FARC being too
strong to be defeated on the battlefield and not
strong enough to take power by force, a
negotiated settlement is the only possible route to achieving peace.
The FARC, however, is not about to simply
negotiate its demobilization in return for
reduced prison sentences as the paramilitaries
have done. Nor is the FARC likely to demobilize
in return for a full amnesty under a peace
agreement that leaves the structures of
neoliberalism intact, as did the M-19 in
Colombia, the FMLN in El Salvador and the URNG in
Guatemala. Any negotiated peace would require a
restructuring of Colombias political, social and
economic system to ensure a much more equitable
distribution of the countrys wealth and land.
But such a negotiated settlement would require
the acquiescence of the countrys political and
economic elites as well as of the US government.
Consequently, at least for the near future, it
appears that the conflict will continue to rage.
And, tragically, it will be the civilian
population that will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.
Garry Leech is an independent journalist and
editor of the online publication Colombia
Journal, where this article first appeared, which
analyzes US foreign policy in Colombia. He also
teaches international politics at Cape Breton
University in Nova Scotia, Canada. Read other articles by Garry.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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