At War

The women fighting the Colombian government tell their stories.

Photographs by Nadège Mazars
Text by Nadja Drost


The Western Hemisphere’s oldest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is about to lay down its arms. After three-plus years of negotiations, the FARC and the Colombian government have signed a cease-fire. It is expected to lead shortly to a peace agreement, ending a conflict that has gone on for 52 years.

When it was founded, the FARC unified peasant self-defense groups against a notoriously oppressive government and elite. By the 1980s, it had transformed into a full-fledged Marxist insurgency that relied on extortion, kidnapping, and the drug trade to finance itself. All sides in the war — guerrillas, the army, and right-wing paramilitary groups — have committed atrocities. Bombings, massacres, land mines, executions, and forced disappearances have left 220,000 dead and more than 6 million Colombians displaced.

Years of mass desertions and U.S.-backed military offensives have cut deeply into the FARC’s ranks. Today, it has an estimated 7,000 armed fighters. Women make up approximately 30 to 40 percent of the force. Carrying out the same duties as men, from cooking to combat, many women inside the FARC say it is a haven from the traditional roles expected of them in machista Colombian society. But just how egalitarian the FARC is has been a contentious subject, particularly regarding the choices women have — or don’t have — when they become pregnant. With a peace deal imminent, the women of the FARC are now preparing to step out of their clandestine lives in jungle camps and remote hamlets.

Members of the FARC in a village near the Caquetá River
I joined the FARC at a very early age, at 14. I come from a family that has been very persecuted by the government. One night at 1 a.m., the police arrived and kicked open the door, yelling. They let my father go, but they took my uncles away. We had another uncle who was indeed a guerrilla, but not the two who were disappeared. After what happened, my dad was filled with fear.
One day, the uncle who was a guerrilla sent an invitation. He wanted to see the family. He asked me, ‘So, niece, what are you up to?’ I told him that I was about to get baptized in the Adventist church. He told me, ‘Keep in mind that the government uses the shield of religion to keep intelligence on families.’
My cousins said to me, ‘Cousin, come, there’s a party tonight.’ So we went to the party and later to a rockola, and there I came across the pastor. I said, ‘Father, what are you doing here?’ And he said, ‘And you, here?’ He invited me, ‘Sit down. Will you drink something?’ He told me, ‘You live in an area where you see guerrilla.’ And I was thinking, ‘Why does he want to tell me this?’ He said, ‘Look, the conversation we’re going to have is just between us, because I can see that you want to help yourself and your family. If you pass along information that you saw the guerrilla, in which house they stayed, that’s enough for you to earn a salary.’
I thought about what my uncle had told me. Two services later, I discovered that the priest carried two bibles — one was personal, and the other was one he shared. In the personal one there was a pistol. When I discovered this, I told my uncle. The FARC organized an operation to capture him the next Saturday. He was a military officer disguised as a priest. From then on, I liked the idea of joining the FARC.
I appear on a Most Wanted list. It makes me proud because it makes me think that my work in the FARC, without firing bullets, is affecting the enemy. I’ve helped mobilize protests and strikes. I’m a humble woman who comes from poverty, and today, look at how I’ve got the government worried.

Nom de guerre: Yurluey Age: 32
Second in command of Political Organization, Teófilo Forero Column

The unit changes its campsite every three days.
Sirley was 14 when she joined the FARC.
Jessica checks that her rifle barrel is free of rust.
Camouflage tarps prevent detection by surveillance planes.
In 2000, on September 7, we were caught in a military ambush. Only two of us got away. I didn’t feel anything when I got burned. I noticed later because I made the effort to grab something with my left arm, and I couldn’t. It took me seven days to get to the clinic. But it was already too late, and the only thing the doctors could do was amputate my arm. I can’t carry a rifle anymore, but I do carry another weapon — a pistol.
Because I was injured, the FARC gave me the opportunity to train in communications. For seven years, I worked in the radio station, Voice of Resistance of the Southern Bloc. If we eventually reach a peace agreement, I’d like to do communications for the political party the FARC will create.
In the FARC, you get wrapped up, and everyone is like your family. Here you forget about the people who brought you into the world. To reunite with my family? I don’t know. I’d feel emotion on the one hand, but it would also make me think because I don’t know if I’ll find them dead or alive.

Nom de guerre: Mary Age: 31
Communications specialist

A campsite in northern Caquetá
Jessica washing clothes in a river
Bathing at the end of the day
Sirley with her boyfriend, who had spent the previous year in prison
It’s a long story. Basically, I was studying at university in Holland, and because of the way life happens, I ended up in Colombia doing an internship. I started to see the injustices that existed in Colombia, the way that people lived, the poverty, but also the terrorism of the state. After a long time, I decided to join the FARC.
A lot of guerrilleras, when they talk about machismo, they themselves recognize that they have machismo in their head. They recognize that when they join the movement, a lot of times they’re offered opportunities to move up, to take on certain responsibilities, and they don’t take advantage of them. That’s not universal. There are women in the FARC who come up; you see women who are commanders, who are part of a front’s leadership.
When we join, we’re told, ‘Here, contraception is obligatory.’ If a woman ends up pregnant, it can become very complicated in a situation of war. It can put at risk the life of an entire unit. The problem is not in having a child. You can find guerrillas all over who have children. The problem is the context of war. War is not a scenario to have children. You can’t. Besides, how are we going to force a guerrilla to carry diapers?

Nom de guerre: Alexandra Nariño Age: 38
Delegate to the peace talks in Havana

While Jessica braids her hair, Sandra encodes a message.
Sandra’s message will be radioed out.
Yurluey carrying tent poles she’s chopped down
A guerrilla in front of a mural that reads, “Women are also the face of the FARC.”
Sandra with her adopted parrot
The paramilitary entered the village where I lived, and they killed a lot of people, including the father of my daughter. Maybe they would have killed me. I left my daughter in the crib — that dawn was so sad. I picked her up, gave her a kiss, put her to bed again, and I left for the guerrilla.
The change in my life was very abrupt. I was a very feminine woman, very weak. And I could no longer put on tight pants. I had to get used to carrying two arrobas [50 pounds] on my back sometimes, walking for days and nights without rest.
When my daughter was 14, she sent me a letter, saying that I had never been there for her happiest moments or for her difficult moments. So I told the commander, and he said, ‘Call for her and spend seven days with your daughter.’ I enjoyed those seven days with her so much. I caressed her. I kissed her. We had a happy time together. We changed from being a mother and daughter to friends. Sometimes when they bring me a letter, she says: ‘Mother, when are we going to live together? When am I going to tell you so many things about myself? When are the guerrilla going to stop so that we can see each other more?’
When people ask my mom about me, she says that I was killed a long time ago. It’s less risky. Not to have any link with me, it’s better.
I’ll tell you about how one goes about having a romantic relationship in the guerrilla. If I like someone, we ask for permission to be able to have a relationship, a night together, and if the two of you see that you get along well, then, simple, you ask for authorization from the commander to be together.
She might go on a mission for a month, he might go on a mission as well for a month, but you stay together. There are always risks, and you know that in any moment, you can die. So a guerrilla lives life with great intensity, enjoying it to the maximum. I’ve had a partner for 14 years here in the organization. We’ve shared beautiful times and difficult times, do you get me?

Nom de guerre: Judy Age: 34
Dentist


Nadja Drost is a Canadian journalist based in Bogotá. She has written and produced stories for the Atavist Magazine, Maclean’s magazine, CBC Radio, Radio Ambulante, and the PBS NewsHour.

Nadège Mazars is a French photographer who has lived in Colombia since 2007. Three years ago, she began her series, The Other Colombia, about the FARC. She received an Emergency Fund grant from the Magnum Foundation and the Prince Claus Fund in 2016.

Originally published at californiasunday.com on June 23, 2016.