False promises of a better life mask a reality of infanticide, violence and sex slavery for some recruits
TAME, Colombia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Under the dense rainforest canopy, 14-year-old Claudia Roa lay delirious with pain after giving birth to a boy. A nurse in camouflage gear and rubber boots mopped up the blood flowing down her legs.
Roa was only too well aware that having a child with her boyfriend, also a fighter with Colombia's biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was forbidden.
"Eight months into my pregnancy, I was given pills without me knowing to induce the birth," Roa recalled. "The baby was born alive. I held the baby for a moment in my arms and then I passed out. That's when my child was taken away.
"A female fighter told me they had killed my baby. They suffocated him by putting a hand over his mouth and nose."
Just months earlier, Roa had been recruited by guerrillas fighting Latin America's longest-running insurgency in a remote outpost in Colombia's Amazon jungle.
She was to spend 11 years with the Marxist rebels, who had increasingly turned from their roots as an agrarian movement to cocaine trafficking, kidnapping and extortion - before she surrendered to Colombia's military earlier this year.
Like many girls from the country’s poor, neglected indigenous communities, Roa was lured into the rebel group on false promises of a better life.
"They promised me thousands of things, that I'd learn stuff, that there'd be many opportunities to study,” Roa, now 25, told Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting on a park bench in Tame, a town in Colombia's northeastern Arauca province. “I believed them. But none of these promises ever turned out to be true.”
She was in Tame as part of a government-led public campaign to persuade fighters to turn themselves in, as peace talks continue in Havana to try to end 50 years of war.
Roa may be a poster child of government efforts to encourage demobilization, but her story offers an unusual insight into life for women rebels behind the frontlines, since rebel strongholds remain a no-go zone for most Colombians and foreigners.
Women and girls are as much the backbone of the FARC as the men and boys. Rights groups have documented their role in gathering intelligence, recruiting children, fighting on frontlines, serving as sex slaves for commanders, digging trenches and latrines, and standing guard.
Cruelty experienced by child soldiers, along with a U.S.-backed state military offensive against the FARC since early 2000 and a government program that helps ex-combatants reintegrate into civilian life, has seen thousands of rebels desert in recent years and thousands more killed in combat.
There are still around 7,000 rebel fighters, and women and girls are thought to make up about 30 percent of FARC ranks, the government estimates.
But thousands more guerrillas could soon hand in their weapons if the Havana talks finally end a conflict that has killed 220,000 people and displaced nearly 5 million, according to a 2013 study by Colombia's National Centre for Historical Memory.
VENEER OF EQUALITY
Rural communities across Colombia say the FARC is still recruiting children to prop up their dwindling ranks.
Girls and women are easy targets for the rebels, the government says. High levels of sexual abuse and domestic violence make young women susceptible to the FARC's offers to take care of them.
"Most demobilized fighters are psychologically battle-scarred and have witnessed killings," said Stella Duque, who runs Life Workshop, a non-governmental organization in Bogota that helps demobilized fighters. "But young women tend to suffer more because of the sexual abuse some have experienced."
When Luz Segura joined the FARC, she was a 12-year-old girl who longed to escape her father's beatings.
"I'd always wanted to be the girl who went to school, but my father was abusive,” said Segura, who spent 22 years with the FARC as a nurse performing basic first aid before deserting four months ago. “So being with the rebels seemed a better option at the time even though I was too young then to make any proper decisions about my life."
Listed as a drug-running terrorist organization by the United States and European Union, the FARC oversees a large share of the cocaine that ends up on American streets.
Yet when it was conceived in 1964, it called itself the people's army, fighting to defend the rights of landless peasants who lost out in the unequal distribution of land in the country.
But Roa said she and women like her enjoyed few rights while in rebel ranks.
"You don't have the right to question authority. You don't have the right to see your family and women don't have the right to have a baby, to be a mother," she said.
Roa remembers it was mostly girls like her who would prepare and serve meals, lugging firewood, peeling potatoes, making rice, beans and black coffee.
"The only women with privileges are the girlfriends of the commanders. They're the only ones who have the right to have children. They rarely have to do guard duty at night. And they get to have good clothes and nice earrings," she said.
Women fighters were expected to fight alongside men and endure weeks-long marches hoisting heavy loads through mosquito-infested mountainous terrain. Like men, they were taught to fire a pistol and AK-47 assault rifle, and trained to assemble and plant homemade landmines against government troops.
With two women on the 10-member FARC team of negotiators at peace talks in Cuba, the rebels can claim to be promoting gender equality - a view propagated by the FARC's new website, Farianas, run by and dedicated to its female members.
"In the FARC, women are neither decorative nor sex objects," guerrilla Yira Castro is quoted as saying on the website.
One of the FARC's negotiators is Tanja Nijmeijer, 35, a photogenic Dutch woman, who speaks near flawless Spanish and English. In the 1990s, Nijmeijer left her middle-class home in the Netherlands and went to Colombia to teach English.
She ended up joining the FARC as a fighter in 2002, rising through the ranks to become an assistant to a senior commander. The Colombian government, which tried to veto her involvement in peace talks, says Nijmeijer is simply being used by the FARC to boost the group's image in Europe.
NEVER LOOKED BACK
Ultimately, few women were ever appointed commanders, and gender politics played out in the jungle as it did elsewhere.
"A FARC commander does what he wants and he has any woman he wants," said Roa, who eventually gained some status within the FARC, when she was put in charge of radio communications - an important position because it enabled commanders hiding in jungle lairs across Colombia to speak to each other in secret code and plan operations.
Yet despite her skills and loyal service, Roa received no privileges - something that was made clear when she became pregnant again last year aged 24.
Roa says contraception, which was often injected under the skin of the upper arm, was usually mandatory for any girl. But in her guerrilla unit, she was given no birth control.
"When I had a protruding tummy six months into my pregnancy, they told me I had to get the baby out," she said. "I said I wasn't going through with it. If they wanted to take my baby, they had to kill me first."
As with the first pregnancy, Roa suddenly found herself keeling over with pain after she was secretly given pills to induce the birth.
"The contractions started one night and the next day I had the baby," she said. "I lay on the jungle floor begging to see my baby. I was told they threw my baby into a bag and buried him."
The loss of two children was Roa's breaking point.
Her opportunity for escape came one night four months ago. Stricken by a painful uterine infection, Roa was given rare permission to leave the rebel group to recover under the guard of a family living in a nearby village.
She waited until everyone was asleep.
"I crept out of the house and ran for my life. I kept on running through the dark streets and never looked back," Roa said.
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