Scars haunt Colombian rebels as they disarm

Scars haunt Colombian rebels as they disarm©Raul ARBOLEDA / STR / AFP
FARC guerrilla fighter Sebastian lost an eye when he was 19
2 min 36Approximate reading time

Jair's missing right leg reminds him of many things: the heavy price he paid for fighting in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the pain he inflicted on others.

The 25-year-old guerrilla came of age in the FARC, which he believed was fighting to create a more just Colombia. Now, the Marxist rebels are gathering in disarmament camps after reaching a peace deal to end the half-century conflict. Preparing to disarm has given Jair a chance to think about how the violence has shaped his life.

Six years ago, he was pursuing an enemy soldier in the country's northwest when he stepped on a land mine. Blown through the air, he landed 15 meters (yards) away, covered in blood and wearing nothing but his underwear, even though he had been dressed in combat fatigues just seconds before.

"It's very hard when you've never been taught how to live after losing a leg," he told AFP at a FARC camp in the jungle along the Arquia river, in the northwest. The camp sits near one of the demobilization zones where the rebels are now due to surrender their weapons, in a process overseen by the United Nations. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt, the handsome Jair seems like any other 20-something from the waist up. But he feels ashamed when civilians see his "ugly scar," he said. "We're at peace, but obviously this thing happened to you during the war. It's a reminder you're left with," he said.

- War among the poor -

A native of Colombia's Caribbean coast, Jair joined the FARC because he believed in their fight for social justice in a country with an ugly history of exploiting its impoverished masses.

But he struggles with the destruction his own actions wrought on other people's lives. "It weighs on me, because it's a war between poor people. We're killing each other," he said.

The Colombian conflict, which grew out of a crushed peasant uprising in the 1960s, has drawn in not only the army and the FARC, but several other leftist rebel groups as well as drug gangs and right-wing paramilitary units funded by wealthy landowners. It has killed more than 260,000 people and left 60,000 missing.

- Moving on? -

Mileidy, 19, also struggles with the scars left by the conflict. A year ago, army air strikes hit the camp where the teenage guerrilla and her comrades were hiding out.

Shrapnel tore into her legs and right arm. She still has metal fragments lodged in her body. "It feels like an electric current that just keeps growing. It really hurts," said the rebel.

She said she had no regrets about her role in the conflict. "They (the army and paramilitaries) were shooting to kill. So how could we feel bad about capturing and killing them?" she said with a severe gaze. But now, "we're in a peace process. You have to make friends with them," she said.

"Nobody likes war," said Sebastian, a guerrilla who lost his right eye in a 1998 skirmish with paramilitary fighters who according to the FARC had been killing peasant farmers. He was 19 years old at the time. "Combat isn't good, but sometimes you have to do it," he said, still dressed in the camouflage uniform he has worn for more than 20 years. "But now there won't be any more battles. We have to forgive."

- Contested peace accord -

It remains to be seen how ready Colombian society is to forgive the FARC, however.Over the decades the rebels have themselves wrought terror with massacres, kidnappings and revenge killings.Last October, voters rejected the peace deal after opponents vehemently condemned the concessions made to the FARC, which will become a political party. The opposition campaign argued that President Juan Manuel Santos gave the rebels seats in Congress when he should have jailed them for war crimes. Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize five days later, sent his negotiators to work out a revised deal with the FARC. The second time around, he had it ratified in Congress. Critics complain the final deal still grants the FARC impunity and was never put to a popular vote.