Colombia, (RE) BIRTH

Catalina Martin-chico

2017 - Ongoing

The conflict had been going on for so long, it was almost part of the scenery. FARC guerrilla forces had a toll of 260,000 dead, seven million displaced, and tens of thousands missing. The peace agreement, signed in August 2016, put an end to more than half a century of violence.

Colombia then discovered a completely unknown aspect of life for the female fighters with the Marxist rebels; and it has been estimated that women accounted for nearly 40% of the FARC Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. During the 53 years the guerrilla warfare was waged, there was a ban on child-bearing, and any pregnancy that did occur had to be terminated, or any babies born had to be abandoned at birth. Since the signing of the peace agreement, hundreds of these young women have now chosen to bring life into the world. For Colombia, this is “the jungle baby boom.”

Colombia, 2017. Catalina Martin-Chico was able to cover the everyday life of these men and women who had not yet laid down their arms but were waiting to return to ordinary civilian society. The ex-FARC fighters were still in a transit area then, learning the hard way about making the transition to mainstream society.

Colombia again, 2018. What were just camps the previous year now looked like ordinary villages. A few people were still wearing camouflage gear, but they had dropped their noms de guerre and gone back to the names given to them at birth and which had been banned for so long. There was a new impetus, and the women finally reestablished contact with the families they had not been allowed to see for reasons of security. All these men and women had yearned to find their relatives and loved ones, and they had to learn how to live as a group in society all over again. They all had one obsession, and that was the future, and finding their place in the society they had turned their back on for so many years. They knew that the allowance which the government paid to fighters who had laid down their arms was for the transition period, and that no payment would be made after the summer of 2019.

Former members of the FARC were free again, but they have only a few more months to learn how to pick up the thread of everyday life, how to get used to ordinary living, after years surviving in a totally self-sufficient environment. The new life was unknown, even frightening, but it had to be planned.

Today, some of the young mothers have left the transition camps to live with their parents; others have chosen to settle in rural areas and to farm. They too have sometimes shown daring; and a rare few have decided to go it alone, starting from scratch, just two adults together, often forced to disguise their identity while living in cities nearby.

The wound runs deep, carved out through more than fifty years of violence, and it is only just healing. The political climate is still volatile, and there seems to be little faith in it, yet Colombia has started, cautiously, to believe in its rebirth.

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  • Olga (her nom de guerre) was one of the first female guerrillas to become pregnant while in one of the 26 rehabilitation camps set up to help transition from the jungle and adjust to civilian life. When she joined the FARC at the age of 11, she had already spent years living in the street after her stepfather had attempted to abuse her and her mother had thrown her out of the house. She has now changed her name back to Angelina.

  • Most of the former fighters joined up when teenagers, and have only ever lived as part of a group. Until this year, everything was done together, taking turns for cooking, washing up, keeping guard, laundry, and showers. The bathroom facilities here are basic, with a water supply for washing people and clothes. No one strips off to wash, and they all wash together. In both guerrilla forces and the camps, there has always been equality between men and women; it was one of the rules that had to be accepted before joining the FARC. Another rule was the ban on pregnancy.

  • At the camp, Tatiana, Sergio and little Pavel take advantage of a tropical downpour to wash. Tatiana was a fighter, and lost three of her brothers. “My brother who was with the FARC was killed in a clash with the army. The other two were killed by paramilitary forces because they had brothers with the FARC. Can you believe it! I’ve only just discovered that, and it was ten years ago.”

  • Common everyday scenes in FARC camps at the time the peace deal was concluded. The women help one another, for many have no direct experience of dealing with babies, and no support service has been provided for them. Here, Edith, who has twins, is helping Jessica with her newborn baby.

  • In the camp in La Elvira, in the Valle del Cauca, celebrating the 53rd and final anniversary of the existence of the FARC as an armed group. Since the peace agreement, they have set up a political party, still called FARC, but the words behind the letters of the acronym have changed and now stand for the “Common Alternative Revolutionary Force” instead of the “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” The emblem too has changed: gone is the flag with two rifles crossed, for now there are two hands clasped together. The peace deal guarantees that the new FARC will hold five seats in the senate and five seats in the lower house for the next two legislatures.

  • The transition camps have grown into small villages, and always with a football field. Here, in Icononzo, there is also a common room with a WiFi connection, a small restaurant and a store. A few tents from the very early days of the camp are still standing, “in case tourists turn up and want to see how we used to live.”

  • In the jungle, before the transition camps were set up, they were simply known as “the twins” and they were born in the jungle. They are being raised by their mother, Edith, alone, as their father, a FARC guerrilla, was already in a steady relationship with another woman.

  • Mayerli, seen here in the temporary camp of Colinas, became pregnant soon after the peace agreement was signed. That also meant she could look after her seven-year-old son Esneider whom she had been forced to give up when he was two, leaving him with his paternal grandmother. Mayerli had dreamt of guerrilla forces and warfare from a very early age, and wanted to join up when she was 12, but they said she was too young. Later she did join up, leaving home and her violent partner. Today she says that she has absolutely no regrets.

  • Breiner (8), three of his siblings and his mother came to the camp in Icononzo, in the mountains south of Bogota. Relatives of former FARC members come into the camps and take up residency in rent-free houses; and at the same time, half of the former guerrillas have been leaving the camps to live as civilians in society.

  • Andrés was reunited with his mother as soon as the transition camps were opened in late 2016. Elizabeth had given birth in a tiny village on the edge of the jungle, and was able to get in touch with her mother who came to get the baby. Many women who had lost contact with their families had to leave their babies with strangers. Andrés and Elizabeth are now inseparable. Andrés sleeps beside his mother, telling her: “You spent nine years without me, so now you’re going to let me sleep with you for nine years.”

  • This year, former members of the FARC who have decided to stay in the camps are setting up greenhouses to grow food for themselves and perhaps to sell their produce.

  • At the camp in Colinas, in a jungle in Guaviare, many relatives of former fighters have settled here with their families. There is even a school now, with children as young as four and adolescents too.

  • In the space of nine months, the camp of Colinas has completely changed: the former fighters have built houses and bathroom facilities next to the jungle where they once pitched their tents, at the entrance to the camp. This man is the bodyguard for the comandantes, the camp managers who live a short distance away, on a hill overlooking the camp. Nearly half of the former members of the FARC have now left the camps.

  • “I really deserve to have this baby!” Yorladis is pregnant for the sixth time, and is reveling in the experience. The other five pregnancies during her years with the FARC forces were all terminated, the last one when she was six months pregnant. “I had people helping me, and I wanted to keep the baby, so whenever the commander came by, I would wear loose clothes. But one day he turned up unannounced, and sent me to the sick bay. I had to give birth as if it were a full-term pregnancy; he was big and fully shaped. I dug a hole next to my tent and buried him, then wept for two hours.”

  • Icononzo camp is three hours by road through the mountains south of Bogota. Each of the 26 transition camps has developed in its own way. This year the road was built through to the camp in Icononzo, and it has become a little village with houses rather than tents. Residents are allocated a small house and may become owners.

  • Tio Emiro came to help his nephew Jairo who is starting a new life in Puerto Triana, on the Guayabero River, together with his partner Dayana who was also with the FARC. They left the transition camp so that they could live on the land, here in this isolated spot where Jairo spent his childhood before joining the FARC at the age of eleven.

  • In 2011, during the period of guerrilla warfare, Jairo’s girlfriend was killed in a bomb attack: “Me mataron” (They’ve killed me) she said to him before dying in the trench where they were. “There was a lot of smoke, but I put my hand down and could feel the blood. I was wounded and had to run, leaving her there.” After four months in a jungle hospital, he fell in love with the FARC nurse, Dayana. Their daughter, Andrée Nicole, was born after the peace deal.

  • Dayana (33) joined the guerrilla forces at the age of 15, leaving behind her four-month-old baby, and only saw him again three months ago, by which time he was seventeen. She has also been reunited with her own relatives, not having been in contact with them for nearly twenty years. Her son, Fabian, was raised by his father and paternal grandparents. Since the peace deal, Dayana has had a second child, a little girl, whose father is Jairo, who was also with the FARC.

  • Dayana is about to go back to the camp in Colinas to collect the belongings they left there. In the jungle, there were very few opportunities to have time for herself. “We used to change campsites every two or three days. We would pack up every morning and unpack every evening. There were no beds or mattresses, just a few palm leaves. Sometimes we had to carry as much as 50 kilos. I survived pretty well; I only got shot in the leg.”

  • Chechis and Leonardo had their baby in January 2018. They decided to leave the camp to start their own life, living anonymously in a city where they knew no one. Chechis lost two of his brothers who were also with the FARC, and were killed in fighting. Life in the city is difficult for them as they are afraid of being rejected, and feel that people hate them.