Women Guerrilla Combatants
The London Observer. 24 August 2008
text by Alice O'Keeffe
FARC Guerrillas - La Macarena, Meta. Photo: © Paul Smith


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.