Colombia's female guerrilla fighters are raising kids in a war-free country—and terrible conditions


LA CARMELITA CAMP, Colombia—The sun is beating down on this guerrilla camp in southern Colombia as five month old Manuela starts to cry and kick her feet.

Her dad, a guerrilla fighter who goes by the war name Danilo Alvizu, approaches the baby’s bed and tries to distract her with a toy. Meanwhile, her mother reaches out for a new diaper.

After stabilizing the child, the couple changes Manuela’s diaper. Parenting is something new to these hardened fighters, but it’s a role they’re adapting quickly to.

“I’ve learned to clean her up,” says Danilo, 27, who recently invited me to visit his rebel camp. “Her mother is the expert at putting on the diapers though,” he adds with a chuckle. A machine gun hangs from the small bed where the family sleeps.

Danilo, and his partner, Sandra, are among dozens of fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) who are becoming parents as Colombia’s civil war comes to a close.

Having kids used to be strongly discouraged within the rebel organization, and some of the group’s deserters have said the FARC forced many of its female fighters to get abortions at their jungle camps.

But as the guns go silent and the FARC prepare for civilian life, the troops are going through a “baby boom” of sorts. According to the guerrilla group, more than 130 women in the organization had kids last year as fighting with the Colombian government ended, while an additional 90 female fighters are currently pregnant.

For these women, the recent peace deal with the government is an opportunity to start a new family, and give birth to a generation of children not surrounded by violence.

“We entered this organization knowing that you couldn’t have kids here,” said a guerrilla fighter who goes by the alias Daisy Garcia. (Most guerrillas still prefer to use their war names to avoid discrimination when they re-enter civilian life.)

“If you got pregnant [during the war] you could either get an abortion or give birth, breastfeed your baby for a few weeks, and send it away to grow up with relatives,” Daisy explained.

Now she has a small child who was born in November, the same month that Colombia’s government and the FARC signed a peace deal that ended 52 years of war.

“Peace time conditions allow us to make different choices,” she said.

But having a child is still an uphill struggle for guerrilla fighters. The FARC’s 7,000 or so troops are currently staying in government-run “transition and normalization” camps where, for the next six months, they will take job skills classes, clear up their legal status, and turn in their guns.

But according to Colombia’s human rights ombudsman, these camps have been plagued by logistical problems that have become a health hazard for the babies living there.

At the Carmelita camp in southern Colombia, some 380 guerrillas sleep under steamy tents made with black plastic sheets. Houses, promised by the Colombian government, still haven’t been built.

FARC commanders argue the government hasn’t provided adequate construction materials. But government officials said Monday that the delays have been caused by local FARC commanders who stopped contractors from working because they were unhappy with the current construction plans.

Meanwhile, the intense tropical rain has turned much of the place into a muddy field, with puddles of water that can breed dangerous mosquitoes.

“The conditions here are far from ideal,” Danilo said as he bounced his daughter on his lap. “We have had to give my daughter rehydration solutions ‘cause the water around here is very contaminated.”

In the next tent over, guerrilla fighter Yerlis Suarez tried to get her nine month old baby, Dayner,  to sleep. “He’s learning to crawl, but there’s nowhere for him to move around,” Yerlis told me. “We are surrounded by mud and it’s not good for the children to crawl through there, so at the very least we need some cribs.”

The state of the “transition camps” is one of the major hiccups in the implementation of Colombia’s peace deal.

The FARC’s leadership has repeatedly called on the government to improve living conditions, while government officers say that guerrilla commanders have halted progress at some camps.

Martin Corena, the commander for the FARC’s southern bloc, says that the poor living conditions at his camp are sapping his troops’ morale and have some fighters grumbling about the decision to make a peace deal with the government.

“It was far less hot, and more comfortable at our jungle camps” Corena told me. “These look more like refugee camps than peace camps.”

The government has said that at some camps, construction has been delayed by commanders who have turned back contractors, asking them to bring “better” materials. At one camp in western Colombia, government officials said that construction was halted by commanders who demanded two sports courts, air conditioned rooms, and porcelain toilets.

“Some commanders are asking for things that go beyond what was initially agreed to…and making requests that are not logical for temporary camps” Carlos Cordoba, the General Manager for the transition and normalization camps said Monday.

FARC commanders rejected the accusation that their organization is stalling the progress of the transition camps. They blame the government for the delays, arguing that contractors are not getting money released to them on time.

Danilo says his transition camp and Colombia’s peace deal have something in common: both are still under construction.

“We can’t really say the peace deal has been implemented if you look at the conditions we live in,” he said. “But this is the start of peace…my daughter is fortunate that she was not born under bombs and gunfire.”

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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