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Dateline

What the FARC?  |  Season 1  |  Episode 27  |  SBS

How do some of the world's most notorious guerrilla fighters integrate back into society after putting down their guns? Colombia's FARC rebels are attempting to make their hills a tourist haven, and use a YouTube channel to tell their stories. Driving in to the Colombian mountains I really wasn’t sure what to expect of the veteran guerrilla fighters we were about to meet. FARC had a frightening reputation for kidnap, assassination and drug running as part of their 53-year-war against the Colombian State, one of the longest running insurgencies in the world fought by fiercely capable Marxist guerrillas trying to overthrow the governments they fought. They were well entrenched, they knew the territory and fought with merciless discipline. Colombia’s vast cocaine trade had been a big part of their funding but they also became well known for kidnapping as thousands for negotiations and more often cash, often holding people in wire cages for years. Clearly, they were no angels. 5 things you should know about FARC: As part of the peace deal thousands of FARC fighters were now living in 26 “transitional zones” across Colombia. It’s here they were meant to be re-learning how to be normal citizens. They receive a small stipend from the government until the end of this year and after that they are meant to have developed revenue-raising projects to fund themselves. We were heading for one of these camps in the foothills of spectacular mountains running along Colombia’s north-eastern frontier with Venezuela. It was in these Andean peaks that had sustained the FARC for so long, they know every valley and river and it is this knowledge they were now hoping to turn in to post-conflict business for fee-paying tourists. Arriving at Tierra Grata we were first met by Colombian soldiers protecting the one road in to the camp. Once the sworn enemy of FARC they are now protecting the ex-fighters from right wing paramilitaries who do not agree with the peace deal and still want to kill many FARC members. We met the local FARC leaders who explained that many had first taken up arms as teenagers when they were either forced off their land by powerful local farm barons or had relatives killed by right wing paramilitaries working for those same barons or the government. Others such as Tierra Grata Comandante Abelardo Almayda told us they joined left-leading groups seeking basic services like schools and clinics in their often remote and neglected rural areas. Once they were active, he said, they were targeted by death squads and had no choice but to the join FARC and take up arms. How to Keep the FARC Guerrillas Out of the Fight As we talked as group of children ranging in ages from toddlers to 11 or 12 were seated in an open-air classroom. A teacher from the government agency helping the transition was handing out coloured pens and trying to keep some semblance of order. Who were they – I asked – they are all children of ex fighters who had only just be re-united with their parents as a result of the peace deal. Pursuing this, I found that as a matter of FARC policy all children born to FARC mothers during the war had to be left with friends or relatives as it was too dangerous for them to stay in the jungle with their parents who were constantly on the move and at risk of attack from government forces. The teacher told me many of these children were just getting used to the fact that they even had a real mother – and that the mothers were just starting to learn how to be parents with all the issues that come with a parent trying to bond with a child after so many years. Some of the children were rejecting them, some of the parents, understandably, were finding it hard to know what to do. “They are only now paying back to emotional debt they feel they owe the children,” she said. Elsa, now 45 years old, was one of those parents. She joined the FARC at 15 after relatives were killed by the death squads. A few years later she fell pregnant. “Some people say FARC forced us to have abortions,” she said. “But that’s not true, my son is proof.” At 18 months old she made a dangerous journey from the jungle back to her village and left her son with a friend. “I remember the day, he was playing with some toys when I turned and left him, I was immediately worried – would he get his bottle, would he be ok, but thanks God she was wonderful.” Why not just leave the jungle and stay with your son? I asked. “I couldn’t, once you were in FARC the paramilitaries could arrest you, disappear and kill you and your child. It happened to people. I had to return and I had to leave him for his safety.” For this reason, she had no contact with her son, Fernando, for 25 years. As we chatted an elderly lady with regal high cheek bones and thick grey hair sat quietly. “This is my mum, Mercedes,” said Elsa, “I walked out on them and joined FARC when I was 15. It was very dangerous for them, relatives and family members of FARC fighters were often killed and disappeared, so I had no contact with my parents …. for 30 years.” I sat for a moment and thought about that. This wasn’t something we had really come looking for and I wasn’t really prepared for the full impact of what I had just heard. “I thought she was dead that I wasn’t going to see her anymore,” said Mercedes quietly with a far-away stare, “Her father kept telling me that she was still alive, walking somewhere but I wasn’t so sure.” Then as a result of the peace deal, Mercedes was told that her daughter was, in fact, alive and looking for her. “I still don’t really believe it,” she told me “I thought it was a lie.” In the decades of conflict 250,000 people lost their lives, Colombian society was torn apart. There were victims, separations and terror on all sides. Suspicions, concerns and major challenges remain especially under a new President who’s no fan of the peace deal with FARC. But in this one moment a family of three generations sitting together after decades of separation seemed to embody what the peace deal could do for Colombia. Elsa was now hugging her sobbing mother - “I am still thinking that it’s not real but thank God we are together”. “Don’t cry mum, you found me, we are fine.”

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