A FARC demobilisation camp in Colombia. Photo: Kiran Stallone.
June 20 is the current deadline for FARC combatants in Colombia to finish handing over their weapons to the United Nations in demobilisation camps across the country – a key component of the historic peace deal agreed with the government in December 2016.
The demobilisation process has moved swiftly – by mid-February, an estimated 6,900 members – including many women – had arrived at these camps across the country. The peace deal brings to an end more than half a century of conflict and, among other things, it grants the FARC ten seats in congress and the right to form a political party.
There have been delays, and uncertainty, too. The deadline for decommissioning weapons was originally set for late May – and was then extended to 20 June. Last month, dozens of female FARC combatants remained behind bars in a Bogotá women's prison, unsure of whether or when they might be released to join their counterparts in the camps.
We went inside one demobilisation camp in the mountains near the Venezuelan border to document daily life in late February, shortly after the arrival of FARC members from two frentes (army groups). When we arrived, combatants were busy building temporary houses, a community centre, and even a football field.
The immediate area surrounding the camp (the zona veredal) was guarded by FARC members. State military forces were stationed at the bottom of the highway, controlling access to the zone. Under the peace accords, the military is not permitted within three kilometres of the camp.
After passing the military checkpoint, we reached the inner camp area controlled by the FARC. There, we interviewed female combatants who comprise approximately one third of the total. These photos tell their stories and illustrate their daily lives in the camps.
Mid-rank FARC commander Adriana stands in front of a banner which reads: “Welcome to a territory of peace.” (Photo: Julia Zulver.)
Born in central Tolima, Adriana took a bus to northern Colombia to join the FARC when she was 20 years old: “I came from a poor family with limited resources, and I was unable to finish my studies. I wanted to dedicate myself to a cause, and I was concerned about the social and economic problems in this country.” Now, nearly 20 years later, she tells us: “I am more convinced than ever that joining was a good decision. Here, we work collectively to achieve peace and social justice for the Colombian people. When there is no more misery and unemployment, then there will be peace.”
Camila, 26, was three months pregnant with her first child when we met. The father of the baby she is expecting is a fellow combatant. She said she joined the FARC at 17 years old, after paramilitaries killed her brother and her parents and she found herself displaced, alone, and “without any help from the government.” She told us she hopes that her child will have access to education and that he or she can grow up in a country without war. She said: “in the FARC, we want peace. We just hope the government follows through.” (Photo: Kiran Stallone.)
Gladys joined the FARC when she was only 16 years old. Now 42, she says it was the best decision she ever made. Sitting in the shade of a temporary structure used to house visiting family members, we talked about documented cases of sexual abuse in the ranks, and she seemed shocked. She said: "We bathe in our underwear – men and women together – and nothing happens. We are brothers and sisters here." (Photo: Julia Zulver.)
Under the 2016 peace accords, the United Nations is monitoring demobilisation camps and overseeing the process, including the handover of weapons by FARC combatants. They are also in charge of ensuring that no one unauthorised to do so passes beyond the reception zone and into the demobilisation camp. (Photo: Kiran Stallone.)
Margot, recently reunited with her three-year-old son, sits next to her husband, another FARC combatant. Until the peace deal was signed, FARC fighters with children were forced to leave them with family members, as taking a child into combat would be dangerous for all involved. Margot’s son had lived with his grandparents. She tells us that she is concerned about her financial situation after leaving the camp: “Here in the FARC, we are a family of poor countrymen and women. We have everything we need and we support each other. I worry about my son and how to get the resources to care for him as he grows up.” (Photo: Julia Zulver.)
The demobilisation process has moved quickly, but imperfectly. Combatants in this camp were frustrated to find that, upon arrival, construction was still underway and incomplete. In late February, housing promised by the government remained unfinished and there was no access to water on the day we arrived. (Photo: Kiran Stallone.)
Solanyis is from an indigenous mining community in Cesar department. She joined the FARC at 15, and she learned to read and write in the armed group. She describes her time with the FARC as a wonderful experience, saying: “there would be no female fighters in the organisation if they were treated badly.” Here, Solanyis is on guard duty inside the zona veredal, and is thus wearing fatigues. (Photo: Julia Zulver.)
Sara was a psychology student in Medellin (Colombia’s second largest city) when a friend invited her to meet the FARC in 2000. She took a bus to the north of the country and, at 20 years old, joined the group. She lied to her family about her whereabouts for more than four years. “It is so beautiful to wake up every day and know that you are truly living and fighting for a good cause. I fell in love with the FARC’s revolutionary project,” she said. (Photo: Kiran Stallone.)
Kelly, now 42, joined the FARC when she was 17 because her family was affected by the conflict. She trained as a nurse within the ranks, and took care of those injured in combat. She also provided reproductive health services for female combatants, including administering birth control injections and performing abortions. When asked about reports on forced abortions by the FARC, she said these are rumours invented to damage their reputation: “We aren’t bad people, and I have never heard of forced abortion within the ranks. If a woman decides to have an abortion, it is her choice.” (Photo: Kiran Stallone.)
Combatants prepare lunch in the shade in the demobilisation camp. When we arrive, Leidys (left) offers us a cup of typical Colombian heavily-sugared coffee (tinto). (Photo: Kiran Stallone.)
Commander Solís Almedya (not pictured) tells us he's confident about the FARC's prospects as a political party, saying: “we have no history of corruption, and we will speak to the pueblo, so yes, people will vote for us!" The route ahead is not completely clear or easily-traveled, however. On Saturday, there was a bombing at a mall in Bogota, suspected to be the work of another, newer paramilitary group opposed to the peace process. If this proves correct, peace will remain a formidable challenge – for both the FARC and the government.