Would you like to learn more about Colombia’s efforts in re-integrating ex-FARC guerrilla soldiers into the society?
It certainly is a complex and touchy subject. A thin line between accepting, rejecting, moving on and somehow forgiving some of the most dark sides of Colombia’s history.
Last month I spent some time in Colombia doing photo documentaries for the United Nations Development Programme. One of the assignments was to visit a potential tourism project with both nature and cultural activities in and around a FARC re-integration camp.
The camp has a warm and friendly population just like the rest of Colombia. Nice homes packed together in blocks, shared by ten or fifteen families. Children are playing, with music blasting around. People do not use their civil names here. One of the key people in the camp is Señora Luz, mostly known under her guerrilla name “Yesenia”.
There are no secrets or reasons to be afraid of here. You can talk to anyone you want, and take pictures of everything you find interesting. Roaming in between the blocks is exciting, talking and listening to the stories the people want to share is truly enriching. It’s an extremely interesting place full of political and social inspiration contrasted by a heavy and violent past.
The contrast with some of the articles we see in the mass-media is large: it’s clear that in this camp nobody is preparing to restart the conflict. Not a single person in this camp wants to leave their children and family behind to live as guerrilla combatants again. Four years ago, a lot of these FARC members started to have babies, something that was not allowed during the conflict.
Now they are carrying around their children instead of their weapons.
At first it’s hard to believe some of these people have lived through 50 years of conflict. In the aula where they are being taught the necessary means to start their own productive projects, the amount of children is striking. The room shines in a pink glow of toys and children stuff.
It is important to note that the FARC camp in rural Colombia is not your typical holiday destination; it’s wild nature in its most beautiful form. It’s a destination for adventurers interested to learn more about a part of Colombia’s history, in a different way. It’s a contact with the life of former FARC combatants. It is tourism without any luxury or all-inclusive activities.
One of the guides is Nestor, a youngster full of energy and an ex-combatant with plenty of knowledge about nature. He takes visitors to the waterfalls with a natural swimming pool or on a walk from one waterfall to the other further upstream. He talks about the monitoring project of fauna and flora in which he participates, about the sounds of the woods and plenty of other interesting facts.
He tells stories about his experience arriving in the camp: more than a year ago he arrived in a car with other ex-guerilleros. There were no houses, so they lived in army tents. Bit by bit, with the materials they received from the government, they constructed the houses they are now living in.
This tourism project is supported by the United Nations Development Programme, the Norwegian state (funding the project) and the Ministry of Environment. Their main objective is receiving more guests in the camp. There’s a basic hotel, a restaurant, a bar, a soccer field and the necessary transport to get to the camp. The waterfalls are half an hour walking and there are plenty of other spectacular views around, including multiple birdwatching spots. As a unique feature there’s the socio-political part of “getting to know the FARC”: spending time with these people that once lived in conflict and are now doing their best to restart a normal life and contribute to the Colombian economy. A balanced exercise in avoiding sensational war stories but looking for real impressions and facing reality.
The camp also has plenty of other starting projects: a bakery, yoghurt production, chicken rans, bodyguards for high-risk people of FARC, agriculture for auto-consumption, the restaurant, the bar,… Some people are already involved in activities outside of the camp, such as coffee production or cattle in nearby ranches. Other ex-guerilla are in Cuba enjoying the offer of studying medicine for free.
Ingri works in her garden at the front of her house in the camp. Together with her husband they grow enough vegetables for auto-consumption and sometimes they can sell some of the produce to their neighbours. In the future they would like to further grow this garden and find another life-project.
That other life project might be to produce yoghurt. Ingri’s husband Christian produces home made yoghurt, to sell locally or to the visitors. He makes it with different local fruits in it. Christian and Ingri left such an impression on me; a hard working couple, ready to start their own business and move forward in life.
Astrid is not that sure yet about what she wants to do in life, but she’s now looking to join one of the agriculture projects and is going to help in the bakery shop. Her dreams are “finding peace, no more war, having a job and being able to spend time with her family, mom and dad”.
She gave a positive and funny impression, with her parrot sitting on top of her head, talking openly about her past and her future. Her main fear is how to find a plot of land, when in a couple of months they will have to pay rent in the camp.
For her, life within the FARC started when she was only fourteen years old, looking for hope, seeing her parents living in poverty and losing all their properties after a bad agricultural year.
Sergio has a different story. As a diplomatic man, critical thinker and very intelligent he’s dream is to study medicine in Cuba to further help the people around him. He spent five years in prison and used this time to study and read plenty of books. Without losing faith in his ideals, but conscious of all the mistakes made by FARC in the past, Sergio is full of energy in finding his way forward.
The potential for improvement
A visit to this camp brings as much hope as dispair. Peace is not a given, it requires work for years to come. Life in these camps will also require plenty of change and improvement.
Alexander explains that “we now have a roof, electricity, food and water until the end of december. But there’s no health program. And the other projects are hardly starting.” There’s a hard sense of realism in his voice, reflecting 35 years of life in FARC. “Life is full of difficulties and there are no miracles. It takes plenty of energy to change the culture of war. This process needs time.”
His wife Yesenia sounds more positive, talking and cooking at the same time: “There’s no need to be orthodox in ones thoughts, we need to adapt to the XXI century, also with our FARC ideals. We can maintain the principles, but the implementation needs to change and take the global geopolitical context into account.” Strong words of a young woman involved in plenty of different projects inside and outside of the camp.
A prime example of this struggle is Wilmar. He is a friendly but desperate man, with a patch on his eye. He has been visited multiple times by different doctors promising they will come back to help him. But nobody comes back while his situation continues to get more and more critical. Wilmar is one of many in this and other camps that do not have access to healthcare services.
A sense of community
The camp seems to function like a village, where people share their dreams, their assets and their knowledge. They all take care of each-other.
When the evening falls, the activities shift to the soccer field, where teams of women, men and children find their sports and amusement. An activity that, all around the world, and also during times of guerrilla war, functions as a form of bonding.
As a visitor, spending multiple days in this camp is a ‘cultural gift’ teaching valuable lessons: humility, forgiving, resilience and respect for nature. Let’s hope the tourism project can find it’s way of existing and create a future for these ex-guerilla combatants and the communities surrounding this camp.
Louis Lammertyn is a documentary photographer and sustainability consultant from Belgium.