Colombia is a nightmare of human rights abuses including politically motivated killings, super-exploitation of workers and dispossession of peasant communities. While much of Latin America is now seeking solutions to the results of decades of neglect arising from the rule of privileged pro-US local elites, the government of Colombia is bogged down in a war on its own people. The bravery of the people in resisting this oppression is outstanding. Earlier this year, Anna Pha had the opportunity to speak to some of the bravest — women who have left friends and families behind to fight as guerrillas in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — Ejército del Pueblo — FARC-EP).
In Australia, women still have challenges additional to the ones they share with men as workers or students or unemployed. But the sight of committed Colombian women in their military uniforms gives the outsider pause for thought. What sorts of circumstances would cause these young women — with their whole lives ahead of them, as the saying goes — to opt for a hard life on the run from ruthless government forces and even more ruthless government-backed paramilitaries?
“Of course, the reality of Colombia helps to develop your consciousness because since I was born we have been living in violence deriving from the state,” said Iliana, an older guerrillera (woman guerrilla fighter) who was a young housewife when she answered the call to join the ranks of FARC.
“You start learning reality from life and inside the guerrilla movement; about the exploitation of man by man, the existence of poverty, a society where just a few hold the wealth that should belong to everybody while the majority die of hunger. There is poverty, there is no education for the children, people don’t have housing or healthcare and we don’t have the right to work in dignity. On the contrary — a person who manages to get a job gets poverty wages, doesn’t work in dignity but to die because their wages are just not sufficient to live.”
The statistics of this reality are staggering:
Nearly four million people have been displaced by conflict, mostly instigated by paramilitary groups
1,700 Indigenous people have been murdered by these vigilantes
2,500 trade unionists and 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union political organisation have been assassinated
Tens of thousands of people (peasants and Afro-Colombian communities) have been removed from their land for resource exploitation by transnational corporations
The evictions are often accompanied by massacres and torture — between 1982 and 2005 there were 3,500 massacres in the process of the theft of over 12 million acres of land
The US-funded military have been responsible for 950 execution-style murders since 2002
Congressmen with paramilitary backgrounds and connections now occupy 35 percent of parliamentary posts.
“When I was a little girl, during the aggression against [the guerrilla stronghold of] Marquetalia, I was listening to the radio. I started to feel sympathy with Comrade Manuel [Manuel Marulanda — the long-serving military leader of FARC]. It became my ambition to know these guerrillas despite the fact that the government’s mass media never told the truth. I began asking why the government, with all the support that it has from the US — lots of aircraft, troops, arms, cannons, mortars, aircraft and all the other assistance from the US — they were never able to defeat Comrade Manuel.
“So as a young girl I always had this question — why has a powerful government never been able to defeat this movement? The information about Manuel carried in the media caught my attention.”
Parents — even those living in the harshest and most insecure circumstances of rural Colombia — naturally worry about their sons and daughters deciding to take up arms in defence of the people:
“They are peasants who are not opposed to my decision. They feel pain for me over this decision but they have been lucky — they have been able to come and see me while I have been a guerilla. I have shared with them stories, accounts of my life. They are happy now, particularly my father. It is very difficult for my mother”, said Adriana, a young guerillera.
When asked if her father was proud of her as a guerilla, Adriana responded: “Yes he is. My mother is, too. She saw me after a two-year absence and she said that I’d made the right decision because she didn’t want to see me with a lot of children, suffering. So that was the best decision.”
FARC does its utmost to warn aspiring guerrillas about the rigors of their way of life. From the outset, training and discipline are taken very seriously. Self-discipline and development are emphasised. The guerrillas willingly accept the conditions; they are convinced there is no other way to transform the unbearable social realities of Colombia:
“My experiences inside FARC have been many and varied. One of the ones that gives me the greatest pride, aside from being a member and being proud of that, has been to transform myself into a new person. This is the person of a new type dreamed about by Ché Guevara because here, when you become a member they change the mentality from the one deriving from civilian life. This is a bourgeois mentality — selfish. From there you are transformed into a soldier defending the homeland and the revolution,” said Adriana.
“I have learned a lot. Here we are prepared in all the fields of politics, military science, culture and learn ethical and moral values and Marxist-Leninist principles. We are inspired from the thought of Simón Bolívar to ensure that we are guerillas who are working 24 hours a day for the triumph of the revolution to take power for the people. So we are guerillas of a comprehensive type.”
Activity in and around the guerrillas’ camp involves training in various techniques and specialisations — intelligence and counter-intelligence, security, how to negotiate dangerous terrain, politics and organisation — and the routine activities of a military camp.
Iliana: “A normal day would involve attending to security. For example, when we get up in the morning we will get into formation so that there can be a review of the troops. Then they send us to have coffee. At six in the morning of a normal day we are all having breakfast, then we have to give a report to the commander. In the camp we have to report to the higher commander. After that we all clean the camp, all the equipment, then we go to the classroom to study different topics and attend to all the normal duties that need doing in the camp.
“At nine, we take a break. Some go back to the classroom, others join in maintaining security and others take up other duties. What is very important is that the security is always there and that there is never a lapse in security. The commander then decides if some of us have to do some reconnaissance. At midday we take our lunch and at one we go back to our normal duties once more. We need to look for firewood, latrine duty — all the things connected with the running of the camp. At three we have another short break and generally we all take a shower.
“At six, we have our dinner. I forgot to mention that at five we make another report and another turn at security. At six-thirty, after dinner, we gather again and go to the classroom to listen to talks or read some documents or some cultural item like a film, the news, until about eight. At eight we get into formation and then go off to sleep.”
The women carry out the same tasks and share exactly the same hardships as the men. Their attitude to their work is identical.
Adriana: “I feel exactly the same. I use a gun exactly the same as them. We feel prepared to take the combat up to the enemy in the same way as a man. This is not forgetting that in an army you can feel fear and fear doesn’t wear pants. But if it is my turn to fight I will have to do it because our enemy has to be defeated … it doesn’t mean that we are made of steel; that we don’t get tired, that nothing hurts or that bullets don’t penetrate us. I am just a soldier, a human being who feels pain. Our hearts aren’t made of stone but we are very serious about what we are undertaking. Our discipline is very, very serious.”
The discipline is noteworthy but so, too, is the awareness that FARC is not an instrument of repression, a prop for privileged elites and a system of exploitation.
“We are FARC; an army of a new type. As we say in our documents, we have nothing to do with the brutal methods used by bourgeois armies,” as one younger guerrillera noted.
Nevertheless, they have to deal with apprehension among some rural dwellers. Misunderstanding of the goals and methods of FARC are fostered by a powerful media that is owned by and wages a relentless battle of ideas on behalf of Colombia’s wealthy minority:
“I can’t imagine defending our people without having a real army like FARC. Even if they are not very clear about the meaning of our struggle, I aspire to the situation where they will open their eyes and understand why we struggle and that all the propaganda directed against FARC is not true. They [the government and the media] always characterise us as bad people and, unfortunately, there are people who believe them. When we speak with them and we express our love they become aware that we are not bad people. This is how we are recruiting them and working among the masses. They can understand that the changes we propose will be different.
“Sometimes we find homes where people don’t like us but a guerilla will arrive at a place where there are such people and the first thing we will do is go and greet them in a friendly manner to show them that we are human, who feel things and suffer like others. When we do this we can see the person we talk to will adopt a different attitude. There are people sometimes who think they can’t touch a guerilla or talk to them. They have in their minds that we are like a bourgeois army that will mistreat them and humiliate them; that they will be hurt. But when they find out that we are different they can see reality — that FARC is different.”
The guerrilleras’ plans for what they, as individuals, might do after the triumph of the revolution are not well defined. This is hardly surprising. There is still an armed struggle being waged against anti-people forces that have no desire for peace talks or even a humanitarian exchange of prisoners. The women were clear about the type of society they have committed their lives to building. Its features are straightforward and (even if some people don’t use the term socialist to describe them) are the hope of ordinary men and women the world over:
“We want to build a new state — an alternative to the capitalist state. We want to build a socialist state in which we will all enjoy equal rights, the right to life, to education, housing, healthcare and, as I mentioned before, to work with dignity, to work in order to live and not in order to die. Work should be for the benefit of the majority. Our work should provide the power to the Colombian people to get access to housing, health and wellbeing. The state should plan all those things needed by the people and not just work for a handful of families belonging to the oligarchy who have kept the Colombian people in subjugation and poverty their whole lives and in order that these oligarchs get richer off our sweat.”