The FARC guerrilleros' final journey

In the run up to definitive peace in Colombia, thousands of FARC fighters are leaving the jungle. Reporter Marjolein van de Water follows the guerrilleros of Front 30 on their journey through the mountains and the mud. 'I will miss this, but I'm also looking forward to some peace and quiet.'

Marjolein van de Water
Fighters of Front 30 on their way to the boat that will take them to El Saltillo. Beeld Stephen Ferry
Fighters of Front 30 on their way to the boat that will take them to El Saltillo.Beeld Stephen Ferry

6 November San Bartolome - El Placer

'During the journey it is prohibited to enter civilian houses.' Second in command Braulio (36) gives the 45 FARC rebels, lined up in front of him, a severe look. It's 5.30 in the morning. Bags packed, boots polished, the guerrilleros of Front 30 can't wait to leave. They know the rules, but listen obediently to the commands.

The FARC fighters have packed up their few possessions countless times before, tying them to their backs. Until recently, they could never stay in one place for more than a few weeks, always on the run from government bombings. They're used to sneaking around in the inhospitable Colombian jungle, under a pitch-black sky, guns at the ready, always on the lookout for enemies.

This time, everything's different. The government army has been informed about their journey and their route, as are the United Nations. Although they're not officially calling it demobilisation, the guerrilleros of Front 30 are assuming that this will be their last journey through the mountains. 'We're leaving the jungle for good', says Braulio, who uses an alias, like all guerrilleros. 'Civilisation, here we come'.

Last night, everyone was given sparkling wine from a plastic cup. There was music, glitter confetti and a pop quiz with questions about Karl Marx. This morning, the atmosphere is no less exuberant. 'We've waited so long for this moment', says radiant Camilo (27), nipping his hot chocolate. 'It's going to be a rough journey, but after that, it's the beginning of a new phase.'

The great journey back

Thousands of FARC fighters have left their camps since the beginning of November, in order to settle in transition zones.) As soon as the peace deal comes into effect, they’ll lay down their weapons under the supervision of the UN. On November 24th FARC signed a new peace deal with the Colombian government. President Santos wants congress to have the last word final say, where his coalition has a majority. The UN have urged both parties to make haste and have warned them about the power vacuum that will arise in the areas FARC will leave behind.

The FARC members were originally meant to leave their camps in early October. On September 26th, the Colombian government and the Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement signed a peace deal to end their 52-year civil war. On October 2nd, the Colombian people were given the opportunity to pass judgment on the peace deal in a referendum. The idea was for the guerillas to move to transition zones directly after the vote, to lay down their weapons under the watchful eye of the UN.

But, against all expectations, Colombia voted against the peace deal by a small margin. Front 30 incredulously watched the outcome on TV. Some of the fighters cried. The white balloons they'd hung up seemed out of place, their brand new white t-shirts remained unused and their departure was postponed indefinitely.

President Juan Manuel Santos entered into talks with the leaders of the nay-sayers and proposed a new deal to the FARC's negotiators. Optimism returned and in early November the FARC leaders ordered their troops to regroup close to the transition zones. There was no new treaty yet, but there were high hopes for a happy ending.

Fighters of Front 30 on the boat to El Saltillo. Beeld Stephen Ferry
Fighters of Front 30 on the boat to El Saltillo.Beeld Stephen Ferry

Front 30's journey starts in San Bartolome, in the tropical rainforest near the Pacific Ocean. The guerrilleros have to climb a mountain ridge of nearly three thousand meters high in four days' time in order to get to Robles, a hamlet in the mountains of the Cauca department. Nobody knows exactly what awaits them there. 'I think we'll just have to build a camp first', says Nancy. 'But eventually the UN might give us cottages.'

After the one hour crossing of the Naya river, the journey continues over land. The commanders ride stubborn mules, while the rest of the guerrilleros plod along uphill in rubber boots, carrying heavy automatic rifles across their shoulder. It rains continuously.

Covered in mud they arrive in El Placer in the early evening. Exhausted, they look for a place to bed down on the floor of the wooden building the locals have provided. Surrounded by cockroaches and spiders, the guerrilleros instantly fall asleep.

Front 30

After much insistence the Volkskrant was given the opportunity to visit a FARC camp last spring. The report of the five day visit to Front 30 was published in our newspaper on the 21st of May. The unit’s commander contacted us in October to say that his troops were heading for the transition zone in Robles, and invited us to join them. This offer gave us a unique opportunity to travel for four days through FARC territory, normally off limits to outsiders.

The commanders ride stubborn mules, while the other guerrilleros have to walk. Beeld Stephen Ferry
The commanders ride stubborn mules, while the other guerrilleros have to walk.Beeld Stephen Ferry

7 November El Placer - Rio Mina

It's 5 o'clock in the morning, still pitch-black and the rain is still pouring down. 'I've walked this route many times before', says Camilo, who's waiting for their departure under a lean-to with Orlando (36). 'But never with such a big group. We used to walk in groups of five or six. That way, if there was an ambush, the loss would be minimal.'

Orlando, an Afro-Colombian with serious eyes and an endearing laugh, stares raptly into the dark. He grew up in a small village, in a poor family, and only went to school for two years. He's been with FARC for half his life. 'I wanted to be someone in life', he says. 'My options were limited. It was either guerrilla, the army, or a drug cartel.' He shrugs resignedly.

The mules are packed, the procession gets under way. Slowly, the jungle awakes, the guerrilleros confidently find their way along the slippery path. The sound of rain on the foliage is deafening. Boots and hooves rhythmically slosh through the brownish red mud. The fog is so dense that the gaping ravines are barely visible.

When the clouds finally disperse, they can see vast coca plantations. Along the path there are dozens of laboratories where the coca leaves are processed into coca paste, the base of cocaine. Men stir barrels full of chemicals, empty jerrycans scattered around them. The entire region is run by FARC, and the drugs are highly profitable for them. They claim to only tax producers and buyers, in order to finance their battle efforts. Experts, however, say FARC's involvement goes a lot further than that and that FARC does business directly with Mexican drug cartels.

Today's final destination is Rio Mina. We can see the village from a distance when we happen upon a collapsed stone bridge. The guerrilleros cast hesitating glances at the fast-flowing river. Then, one step at a time, they shuffle across a slippery footbridge, made of three narrow tree logs. The mules have to go through the water and are almost washed away by the current. 'You shouldn't give it too much thought', Braulio says when everyone is safely across.

The bridge to Rio Mina has collapsed so the mules have to travel through the river. Beeld Stephen Ferry
The bridge to Rio Mina has collapsed so the mules have to travel through the river.Beeld Stephen Ferry

Rio Mina consists of a street and a half, mainly taken up by prostitutes and bars. It's a Monday afternoon and blind drunk men are singing loudly along with the Mexican narco classics that are blaring through the speakers. 'No lying on the tables', is scrawled across the walls of one of the bars in black paint. But several men are stretched out and sleeping nonetheless. 'This happens in areas with a lot of coca', Nancy says. 'There's not much we can do about it.'

Resident Mateo Trompeta and his friends hang around a tattered pool table. 'A kilogram of coca paste brings in 900 euros', he says. 'What we earn, we spend on booze and women. What else can we do in this godforsaken place?' Trompeta is worried about the coming peace. 'FARC has made the laws around here for a long time. If you misbehave, you get punished. If the guerrilla leave, we'll have to wait and see who'll take charge.'

Meanwhile, the guerrilleros set up camp in the primary school. They put their rifles against the battered benches, eat soup made out of boiled chicken claws and take a nap on the floor. The villagers treat the FARC soldiers with kindness. According to the guerrilleros, that's because they have the people's unconditional support, but then, not many people would stand up to a group of heavily armed fighters.

8 November Rio Mina - Mina Restaurant

Guerilleros don't use alarm clocks. The ones on guard make a froglike sound to indicate that it's time to get up. Today that happens at three a.m., and not an hour later the guerrilleros are already trudging through the mud again. Obnoxious insects buzzing around their bright headlamps, mosquitoes eagerly throwing themselves at their unprotected faces.

The air becomes thinner, the wind colder. The mules struggle to keep their balance on the steep, slippery rocks. They trip, their knees buckle, and they get up again, snorting. Nancy falls from her saddle, into a deep pool of mud and tries to wipe the muck from her rifle. The pungent smell of a decaying mule rises up out of the ravine. There is a lot of gagging.

The camino real (royal road) was constructed centuries ago by the Spanish. Since then, the twisted path seems to have undergone very little maintenance work. For the locals, it's their only connection to the outside world. Some passers-by walk for days with refrigerators or TV's strapped to their backs. Appliances like that are too fragile to transport on mules. Others wear cages with pigs or chickens on their shoulders.

A FARC fighter is preparing the sleeping accommodation. Beeld Stephen Ferry
A FARC fighter is preparing the sleeping accommodation.Beeld Stephen Ferry

The poor infrastructure is characteristic of the Colombian countryside. Due to the absence of decent roads, farmers are unable to take their produce to market. Cultivating coca is appealing, since the paste producers make house calls to pick up the harvest. Half the rural population lives in poverty, most villages are lucky to have primary schools. They take their drinking water from the river, electricity comes from generators.

Half a century ago, FARC took up arms hoping to end the poverty in the countryside. They failed to do that, but reforms and development of the countryside are part of the peace deal. Guerrilleros that are found guilty of serious crimes by the peace tribunal will be forced to do community service, which might consist of constructing roads in areas like this.

'That's going to be quite a job, constructing a road here', Orlando says. 'But it's important. That way, the children might get access to a high school.' When asked if he has committed any serious crimes, he says nothing, but smiles affably. 'I would help, you know, with the road', he says then. 'I think the best thing to do would be to drill tunnels.'

On the last day they arrived at the mountain summit of almost 3000 meters. Beeld Stephen Ferry
On the last day they arrived at the mountain summit of almost 3000 meters.Beeld Stephen Ferry

It's only 11 o' clock in the morning when the guerrilleros arrive in Mina restaurant, a lonely wooden building, surrounded by steep crags. The rough wind makes the floor boards creak. The rebels warm themselves with sugary coffee on the open patio. Dozens of mules run towards the restaurant on the slippery rocks at the same time. Men yell and whip the heavily packed animals until they bleed.

Several of the men stop at the restaurant, where two sisters serve them steaming plates of rice and meat, and where the guerrilleros will spend the night. One of the ladies drags a TV to the patio, and tunes into a static ridden news channel. But at ten o'clock, right before the results of the American presidential elections are to be announced, the sisters turn off their generator.

9 November Mina Restaurant - Robles

'Trump won', Nancy gravely tells the boys splashing icy water from a rain barrel on their faces. 'This could have serious consequences for the peace process.' The boys give her vacant looks. They're more interested in who won last night's soccer match.

Again, they leave before daybreak. 'The later we leave, the more oncoming travellers there are', Braulio explains. 'That's dangerous. Packed mules don't stop for anything. If the passage is too small, they'll push you into the ravine.' Today, we reach the top of the mountain range. White clouds are drifting deep down in the valley. 'The end is in sight', says cheery Efrain (19). 'We'll never have to do this again.'

Efrain softly sings along with the music on his phone. He's exhausted. 'When there's peace, we'll get to decide what we want to eat', he says. 'I'd like to eat pizza more often. Now we only get that for Christmas or birthdays.' Lucia (19), who struggles to keep up with the group, also fantasises about food. 'I'd like to go to an ice cream parlour ', she says, 'and try all the flavours.'

Nelson, the group's commander-in-chief, is in a talkative mood. The 46-year-old man joined FARC thirty years ago, and knows this area like the back of his hand. 'In 2001 paramilitary forces tried to take over here', he tells some young fighters as they rest on the rocks. 'They came up on this road, and killed dozens of civilians on the way.'

The commander's expression is steely as he recounts how his unit defeated the paramilitaries. 'We got them at Merizalde. The government army came to their rescue, and evacuated them.' He laughs scornfully. 'By then we'd already killed a lot of them. They never came back.'

After four days the guerrilleros arrive in Robles. Beeld Stephen Ferry
After four days the guerrilleros arrive in Robles.Beeld Stephen Ferry

Nelson travels with Peluza, a nasua his unit adopted when she was a baby. The commander feels personally responsible for the animal, who's mounted in front of him on the mule. While he reminisces about the battles, he strokes her little neck. 'I will miss this, you know', he says, looking over the valley. 'But I'm also looking forward to some peace and quiet. The guerrillero's life is hard.'

The last hour of the trip it's downhill all the way. Smiles appear on their faces, the relief is palpable. 'Who knows, Ban Ki-Moon might be waiting for us down there', Braulio jokes. The path leads to a hamlet with a handful of shops, a waterfall and Wi-Fi. 'The transition zone will be there, behind those houses', Nelson points out. 'That's where we'll live and lay down our weapons.' For FARC this is not the end, but a new phase in their battle. 'We're going to continue as a political party.'

Translated by: Lisa Negrijn

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