When would-be president Ingrid Betancourt was rescued last month, Colombia's Marxist guerrillas lost their most treasured hostage. But morale in the jungle was already low, with hunger, executions and forced abortions among Farc's female troops. Alice O'Keeffe meets the women who have given up the revolution
Rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) parade in the main square of San Vicente del Caguan. Photograph: Ricardo Mazalan/AP
Lina grips her face with her hands and lets out a groan of pain. Her uncle is standing over her, his hands forming the shape of a pistol and pointing down at an imaginary body on the floor. 'They had him on the ground, like this,' he says. 'They fired two shots into his head from here.'
'They humiliated him before killing him?' wails Lina, tears running down her face. Her body is bent double at the news of her brother's death. Gunned down aged 27 in her home town of Florencia, southern Colombia, he was murdered, she believes, by her former 'boss' - her commandant in the ruthless guerrilla army, Farc.
Lina was a member of Farc - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - for seven years. Last December, exhausted and demoralised, she deserted, handing herself in to the army. Farc does not take such betrayal lightly. A terrible revenge has been exacted upon her family.
Her compact body is built for life in the jungle; she has strong arms, black hair tied back in a functional ponytail, and long unmanicured nails. From the age of 13, when she signed up, her bed was a cambuche, made from sticks hacked from the trees or a bit of plastic thrown over roots and stones on the ground. She ate lentils, rice and beans - sometimes supplementing them with cockroaches, ants and worms (the big white ones were the best - 'they tasted like butter'). And she saw combat many times - she still has the angry welt where an army bullet pierced her neck and exited through her upper arm. ('They gave me aspirin and sent me to recover back at the camp.')
Today things look different. In a moment of reflection, she glances out of the window of her uncle's bungalow in a grubby, frenetic barrio of Bogota. 'I still can't believe it when I wake up and see the city,' she says. 'I never thought I would get a chance to live like this.'
Lina is one of the thousands of Colombian women who have joined the ranks of Farc. Founded as a peasant militia in 1964, Farc still has its roots in hardline Marxist ideology. For more than four decades it has conducted an implacable battle with the Colombian state and the rival paramilitary death squads of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). Farc began as a rural movement, but has been gradually driven into bases deep inside Colombia's near-impenetrable jungles, some of which are almost the size of Switzerland.
Not surprisingly, hard facts about the rebel group are difficult to come by. The government puts its troop numbers at around 9,000, while other estimates have it at over 30,000. What is better understood is how Farc finances its campaign - through the cocaine trade, kidnapping and extortion.
My visit to Colombia comes a few days after the release of Farc hostage Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate who was seized in 2002 and held in the jungle, sometimes chained by the neck. The rescue of Betancourt - along with 14 other captives - at the hands of military intelligence officers posing as aid workers has hit the group's morale; her description of the 'exceptional malice' with which Farc treats its captives has damaged its international standing further. It is estimated that Farc now holds 700 hostages.
But there's a surprising aspect of Farc's armed struggle: like the kidnap victims, many of the rebel group's own frontline fighters also see themselves as prisoners. And another unusual aspect of this 'war' - around 40 per cent of Farc's frontline soldiers are female.
Lina joined after her mother left home and her father was left struggling to support five children. 'I didn't want to be a problem for him. Farc promised me an education and a wage, so I went to live with them.' Neither of those promises were honoured once she arrived - and it was made clear that any attempt to leave would be punishable by death.
Carolina Escobar Neira is the manager of a programme for former combatants at the Colombian government's High Council for Reintegration. 'Farc has traditionally had a policy of equality among its troops,' she says. 'Women are expected to do the same work as men, whether that is heavy manual work, long marches or combat.'
Farc women, however, often face a life of sexual exploitation, fear and physical abuse. Contraceptive injections are administered forcibly and pregnancies are dealt with by means of abortions with whatever basic medical equipment is to hand.
'They teach you all this Marxist philosophy and then treat you like a slave,' says Lina. Betancourt, too, recalled her shock at the group's treatment of its own female soldiers. 'They were victims, too,' she said. 'I've always had a lot of esteem for them. The girls are tiny, but I've seen them carry heavy logs just like the men. They are slaves.'
It's 20 July, Independence Day in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands of protestors have spilled out on to the streets, amid cries of 'Liberty, Liberty, Liberty!' Magazine racks on street corners show Betancourt's weary but glamorous face, alongside triumphant headlines predicting Farc's demise. T-shirts hanging in shop windows tell a similar story. Their slogan reads: 'No more kidnappings, no more extortion, no more Farc!'
There's a mood of optimism in the air. In March, spokesman Raul Reyes, seen as Farc's number two, was killed in Ecuador, in a cross-border raid by Colombian troops. Days later, another member of Farc's ruling body was murdered by his bodyguard. Then in May, Manuel 'Sureshot' Marulanda, Farc's founder and commander, died of a heart attack. Many Colombians hope these events signal the beginning of the end of the organisation they blame for wreaking havoc and destruction upon their country.
'The collective sensation is that Farc is in its final stages,' says Carlos Montoya, of the National Commission for Reparation and Reintegration. 'The Colombian people have given a clear signal that it is time for them to demobilise.'
President Alvaro Uribe's hardline stance is credited by many with getting the country back on its feet. But any improvement has come at a price. Uribe's government and associates are mired in allegations of involvement in the drugs trade, and senior politicians in his administration have been linked to the AUC's death squads. Amid the flurry of accusations, eight pro-Uribe congressmen have been arrested, and his foreign minister has been forced to resign. Yet, despite these scandals, his supporters are campaigning for a third term for Uribe.
Meanwhile, Cesar Avila Romero, manager of the Esmeralda Peace Home in the east of the capital, has an influx on his hands. Funded by the Ministry of Defence, his place looks after women and families who have recently deserted Farc. 'This year the numbers have been incredible,' he says. 'We are really seeing a massive demobilisation. Many people are arriving here who have spent 10, 15 years in armed combat.' The government reports 1,405 desertions from Farc in 2008, a 10 per cent increase on last year. In total, since Uribe mounted a full-frontal assault on the group in 2002, it's said that nearly 10,000 Farc members have handed themselves in to the authorities.
The Esmeralda has a caring, if slightly chaotic, atmosphere: downstairs in the TV room, rows of young men, women and children watch the evening soap opera, while others snatch a few minutes' sleep in the cramped bedrooms upstairs. A beautiful, blinking baby lies passively on the bed in Romero's office while we talk - she and her twin sister were born prematurely shortly after her mother arrived from the jungle. Both twins have suffered health problems, and her mother is still in the clinic, so he is keeping an eye on her. 'We try to unite families here. Many women arrive feeling that everyone is the enemy - it is our job to show them civil society has something to offer.'
Marcela, 26, has been living at the Esmeralda since May. She deserted Farc after nine years serving in various fronts in the regions of Choco and Antioquia. Petite and pretty, she says she still wakes at night dreaming she is back in the jungle with helicopters overhead and Farc hunting her through the trees. Sometimes she falls out of bed, being unused to sleeping on a mattress after so long on the ground. Being outside Farc 'feels good though. This was the only decision I could make. With time the fear will go away.'
She says conditions have deteriorated for Farc soldiers on the front line. 'When President Uribe arrived everything changed. The commanders were under more pressure. There was more hunger, and more punishment.' She had been living on a diet of pasta, water and salt, and the death penalty was regularly administered to those accused of being 'traitors' or 'infiltrators'.
'When I joined, it was a big deal to sentence a comrade to death. Now, they are getting so desperate that they will kill people for stealing sugar,' says Marcela. Increasing numbers thought about leaving - the 400-strong front had dwindled to 83. 'When we heard the news [about the death of Raul Reyes] we thought - "If he can't survive, what on earth will happen to us?"'
Marcela went through two forced abortions during her time with Farc, and now dreams of starting a family. 'It's a priority. But not yet - I have to get back on my feet first.'
Family is one of the strongest motivations for women - and many men - to attempt the transition into civilian life. Romance in the ranks is frowned upon; couples who wish to have a sexual relationship have to ask their commander for permission, and they can be split up at any time if it is deemed necessary.
In San Cristobal, a hillside barrio on the outskirts of Bogota, one family has stayed together despite the best efforts of the guerrillas. The home of Esperanza Sierra Ramirez, 26, and Jose Orlando Aguirre, 36, is a picture of domestic bliss. Beans and potatoes sprout from a small patch of earth outside the front door, and two dogs chase each other in the chilly morning air. Esperanza is getting her two-year-old son Jose Eduardo ready for nursery, heating his milk in the kitchen while his father dresses him in dungarees and a woolly balaclava.
Orlando and Esperanza served together in Farc for four years, eventually deserting in 2005. Orlando was a committed revolutionary, while Esperanza joined, she says, 'for love', having met Orlando at a party in her home town of Ibague. 'I was very innocent when I met him,' she says, stirring the saucepan of milk and smiling fondly at her husband. 'I didn't even know there was such a thing as a guerrilla. When I first went to the camps I found the physical labour and the lack of food hard. But I was very much in love - at that time I wouldn't have changed my decision for anything in the world.' She admits there were also elements of the lifestyle she liked. 'It wasn't like in ordinary life where the woman has to wash her husband's underpants. In Farc everyone has to look after themselves.'
The crisis came when their commander decided to split the couple up, sending them off to different fronts. They didn't know whether they would ever see one another again. 'I wanted to die. I felt like part of my soul had gone,' says Esperanza. For Orlando, who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Farc's mistreatment of its troops and its abuse of civilians, the separation was the last straw.
'I had always thought the most important thing was the revolution,' he says. 'But when I had to say goodbye to Esperanza I found myself crying in the ranks. I had to ask for permission to sit down. Everybody was shocked - they had never seen me cry. I started to realise I was abandoning my wife for the sake of a revolution that was never going to happen.'
Another recent deserter resorted to particularly dramatic measures in order to return to the family she had left behind when she joined Farc. Sitting in her mother's sparse sitting room in a Bogota housing estate, she looks every inch the typical city girl: manicured nails, carefully groomed hair, white trousers. Amalia now has a respectable job in a travel agency and keeps her guerrilla past a secret from her neighbours. When she went to the camps, her two-year-old daughter was sent to live in Bogota with her grandmother but, after two-and-a-half years, Amalia could no longer bear the separation. 'I was given the task of looking after an airstrip, and I saw my opportunity,' she says. She got on to the plane with her gun and told the pilot he was being hijacked. 'He went very pale and did what I said.' On the journey to freedom she read her horoscope in the newspaper El Tiempo. 'It said I was about to start a new cycle in my life. I remember thinking how true it was.'
Amalia suffered a traumatic forced abortion during her time in the jungle. She was given drugs which succeeded in killing the foetus, but not in provoking a miscarriage. The foetus was later extracted with pincers, and she was given just 20 days' rest before going back into combat. 'I was so angry with the commander. Farc say their policy is social equality, but internally they don't practise that. That is why there is so much demobilisation. And women suffer worst of all.'
Female combatants often find it harder than their male colleagues to fit back into civilian society. 'Women feel more rejection from people in the community, because they have broken not only social rules but also the rules of gender,' says Carolina Escobar Neira of the government's High Council for Reintegration. 'Nevertheless, we find that women take better advantage than men of the government programmes available to former combatants. They are more likely than men to attend counselling sessions and workshops, and to take up further study.'
There are signs, too, that bonds of gender can be a powerful force in promoting peace and reconciliation. Valledupar is a sweltering pueblo nestling just inland from Colombia's Caribbean coast. It was a traditional heartland for the AUC paramilitaries until a demobilisation agreement with the government in 2006, and on its strangely quiet streets people are still tense, suspicious. It is here that an extraordinary group of women have achieved post-conflict reconciliation of a sort the government can still only dream of.
Todos Somos Mujeres ('We are all women') consists of 40 women who meet every Thursday on the patio of a colonial house in the town centre. Half are former combatants with the AUC; the other half had children or husbands killed by the same group. Through sharing their experiences, the two sides have formed a strong bond and now hope to start workshops with both women and men across the country.
In the shade of a mango tree, the women sit hand in hand and explain how they overcame their grief and resentment towards one another. 'Initially we were very defensive in the presence of the victims. In order to ask for forgiveness you have to forgive yourself first,' says Luz Paulina de la Rosa, 42, a former combatant.
Otilia Cordoba, an outspoken community leader whose teacher son was killed by the paramilitaries, testifies to the group's healing effect for the victims. 'I no longer simply think of myself as a victim,' she says. 'Or rather, I realise the women in the armed groups are victims, too. I think as women we realise that, for the sake of our families, we have to try to reach out to the other side. Otherwise how much lower will Colombia sink?'
Could such a programme work for Farc women? Clara Rojas, who was kidnapped with Betancourt while working as her aide, thinks so. I meet her at a breakfast reception in a smart club in Bogota, where she is due to give a speech to a group of immaculately dressed upper-class women. Rojas's lined face betrays some of the strain of the past years. At liberty only since January, she's had just a few months to get to know her four-year-old son Emmanuel, who was taken from her by the rebels when he was eight months old in order to seek medical treatment, and was not reunited with his mother until her release.
Rojas basks in the attention and adoration heaped upon her by the audience. She explains that during her time in the jungle she developed strong, affectionate relationships with some of her female guards. 'At first, I found the female Farc very harsh, very tough,' she says. Things changed when she was pregnant, and she was isolated from the other hostages with only two female guards. Emmanuel's birth left the baby with a broken arm - and his mother in bed for 40 days.
'During the pregnancy I got very ill, and when my son was born I nearly died. If it hadn't been for those two women, I never would have survived. We developed a very intense female solidarity: they were the ones who urged me to pull through for the sake of my son, and they cared for him when I couldn't.'
Rojas believes Farc's female members should have an important role in bringing the group's members back into civilian society. 'Through women you can change things a lot. You can see they suffer - not only in the small ways like being deprived of female clothes and identity, but also in the fact they are not able to achieve the most minimum level of security for themselves and their families. In my experience, lots of Farc women would like a change. I think there is work we could do there.'
But for many Colombians, both victim and combatant, the cycle of suffering is still red raw. Back at the apartment owned by Lina's uncle, no talk of change, of optimism, of solidarity will bring back her murdered brother. Oblivious to the non-stop urban roar of the taxis and street vendors outside, Lina, and her aunts and cousins gather around a mobile phone in the kitchen. They're looking at pictures of the young man sentenced to death by Farc merely for being the brother of a deserter. Lina's mother and her surviving sibling have been forced to flee their home, with no money and nowhere to go.
Lina wipes away a tear. The words she utters don't convey the desperation in her voice. 'Son of a bitch,' she cries. No matter how hard she tries to run, war just keeps catching up with her.