Preparing for peace: inside Farc’s Colombian jungle base


Brazil:It’s early September, the Colombian football team has just scored against bitter rivals Brazil, and the crowd gathered around a tiny TV screen rises and whoops, as it does in bars all over the country. Only this wooden hut is not exactly a bar; it is the recreation area for Camp Diamante, deep within the Colombian interior, a strategic nerve centre for the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgency.
On neat rows of chairs, some girls sit on their boyfriends’ laps; elsewhere it is a crowd of mainly young men and women sitting alongside each other – almost all in military fatigues. These are fighters from the Farc (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). They are out for the evening, some distance away from their beds of bamboo cane and palm leaves, dug deep in the jungle. Until recently they were under ferocious bombardment by the Colombian air force.
Now, a historic peace deal is being forged with the Colombian government, ending the 52-year conflict between the Farc and the state; the evening is relaxed and playful. It is as unlike a guerrilla camp as is possible to imagine.
This week, guerrillas from all over the country converged on this remote encampment to attend Farc’s historic 10th congress and to ratify a peace agreement that ends the conflict. In doing so, they will also vote for their own dissolution as an armed organisation. The future, they say, is to turn the Farc into a political, not military, force.
Tomorrow, 26 September, in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, before diplomats from around the world, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, and the Farc’s supreme commander, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (known by his nom-de-guerre Timochenko), will add their signatures to the peace treaty negotiated over four years in Havana, Cuba. Then the last stage in this tortuous process comes on 2 October, when Colombia votes in a plebiscite on whether to accept or reject the deal.
If Brexit was momentous for Europe, then Sunday’s vote will be Latin America’s most important in decades. A Yes would end the world’s longest-running war, one that has killed 220,000 people. The figure rises to 800,000 if you include the victims of narco cartels – indelibly linked to the conflict that cursed Colombia and caused the internal displacement of six million people. A No vote might plunge Colombia back into the violence that has scarred it for centuries.
Beyond the TV screen – no bigger than a laptop, around which a hundred or so guerrillas are gathered – lies a pitch-black night. But in the near distance an incredible structure is being built. In a race against time to be ready for the 10th congress, cabanas, conference halls, and sleeping quarters for journalists are being built. The site is abuzz night and day with activity, trucks crisscrossing it with building materials, bedding and audiovisual equipment, while fighters move purposefully from construction site to construction site.
It’s like a set from the film Fitzcarraldo, this large space cleared in the middle of the jungle to make way for the congress’s huge structure of bamboo cane and timber. From everywhere comes the sound of hammering, drilling, cement-mixing in wheelbarrows. Guerrillas work two shifts, one group on site from 6am to 6pm, to be replaced by another, who take the night shift.
The young fighters – disappointed at a narrow 2-1 loss to Brazil – leave the bar and wander back to their bivouacs under palm trees, where guns now hang from hooks alongside clothes, water bottles, combs, toothbrushes and the small number of personal items they dot around their simple sleeping places.
If Colombia endorses the peace process, those guns will soon be handed over to the UN as part of the agreement. If, on the other hand, Colombia rejects the deal, the future for this country is less certain, although the Farc has said that there will be no return to war, irrespective of the vote.