She spent half her life as a rebel soldier in Colombia before fleeing to save her baby

The unique challenges former female FARC guerillas face as they reintegrate into society

Fellows 2017

By Sruthi Gottipati

October 23, 2017

Also published by The Lily

Years before Leidy Johana escaped on a motorcycle from the stifling jungles of Colombia in the dead of night, a forbidden baby in her belly, she was just a rebel without a cause.
She grew up on a tomato farm and loved her doting parents and nine siblings but grew restless babysitting, going to school and tending to the crop.

She’s a petite woman sporting a denim jacket, jeans, hoop earrings, hoodie and studded boots.

In the rural countryside of Colombia, she saw fatigue-clad communist fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), as her way out.

She was familiar with the guerrillas: they would swing by her family farm demanding cooking pots and pans. Her father was asked to carry groceries to their camp even though he was opposed to the group’s violence. FARC was widely known to kidnap, extort money and traffic drugs to finance its armed struggle against the state. The fighters would tell locals, including Johana, about their “revolution” and life in the ranks — a seductive proposition to her at the time.

“I wanted to feel free. I was bored in my house,” said Johana. Her mother, she said, tried to stop her teenage daughter from joining the FARC. Ultimately, she was powerless.

When Johana left to become an armed rebel, she was just 16-years-old. It would be years before she realized what a mother would do to protect a child.

Johana recounted her ordeal in June as she was attending a 10-month training program in Bogota — “Beauty for a Future” — sponsored by cosmetics giant L’Oreal. Here, 162 women learn how to manicure nails and cut and color hair. The participants are former sex workers, teenage mothers, Colombians displaced by natural disasters or armed conflict, past drug addicts, or like Johana, ex-combatants.

As a peace deal between FARC and the Colombian government takes effect, bringing to a close a half-century of bloody civil war, I was curious what happens to the thousands of female fighters on the precipice of rejoining society.

The National Reincorporation and Normalization Agency (ARN), is tasked with reintegrating guerrillas. The group previously dealt with individual combatants who had deserted FARC, and is now in the midst of designing a new program for the 7,000 male and female rebels who’ve renounced their arms.

Patricia, 34, who gave her former nom de guerre for safety reasons, had run away from the FARC in 2013 after almost 16 years in the group. She joined the rebels, who she often saw on her way to school, because they used to resolve disputes in her hometown of La Uribe in Meta province. She also wanted the independence from her family, where she was the sixth of 12 children, and was beaten “every single minute.”

As a combatant, Patricia kept guard, cooked food, carried firewood and studied FARC propaganda, just like her male comrades. After deciding to flee after spending half her life in the FARC, she noticed that the outside world was different. Men don’t do the same chores as women, she observed.

Could one tiny effort for previously demobilized women offer clues to what is in store for them?

In addition to the program, Patricia is studying to finish high school and, on weekends, cleans tables at the food court in a local shopping mall.

“The desire for change makes them assume challenges given to them by society,” said Marcela Tovar, a psychologist with ARN who visits homes and monitors the progress of ex-combatants, from their education and health to their security, family and living situation.

The guerrillas spend a few months in “peace homes” receiving psychological care before they are assigned to her. Tovar, who’s worked with about 40 former fighters from FARC, more than half of whom are women, said a lot of them have “unresolved grief” that could stem from abortions, witnessing comrades die without being able to help them, or losing families to the conflict.
“They’re scared of rejection,” she said.

Those who broke out of the FARC on their own accord, before the peace deal was signed, also feared being persecuted.

Johana knew she had to escape. “The first moment I set foot in the camp nothing was the way I imagined it to be,” she said. “It wasn’t what I was looking for.”

She expected a freewheeling lifestyle. Instead, she got barking orders from superiors and was chained to a rigorous military routine that mandated when she had to wake up, sleep and shower. The initial glamour, unsurprisingly, quickly faded.

She longed for news from her family. She missed her mother but kept her feelings to herself.

Johana became a nurse in her third year with the FARC. She treated tropical diseases, war wounds, anything that came her way really. Being able to heal her comrades gave her a frisson of satisfaction.

The group’s promise of sexual liberation was also borne. “You decide who you want to have as a partner. They respect your sexuality. Men will only go as far as you want to go.”

But that freedom over her body didn’t extend to pregnancies. FARC’s edicts, she said, were clear: use contraception, and if that fails, you must abort. (FARC leaders say there were no forced abortions. If women chose to have children, they had to leave FARC.)

Johana said she was coerced to terminate pregnancies. In 2011, she was two months pregnant when she had an abortion. In 2013, she was five months pregnant when she had a miscarriage. “No one knew this but me,” she said. She was working on a farm when she tripped on some steps. “I fell and lost the child.”

She conceived four months later, this time twins. Her nausea aroused the suspicion of commanders, who instructed her to end the pregnancy. Eight months later, when she found out she was pregnant again, she said she had enough. “That’s when I took the decision to leave the ranks.”

In 2014, about six weeks into the pregnancy, Johana confided in her partner. He remained quiet but she was adamant. “I thought to myself, ‘If they’re going to kill me because of my son or daughter, let them kill me’.”

A few days later, they were marching with comrades through the jungle, covering several miles a day with assault rifles in hand, when he cornered her. “He asked me, ‘Would you run away with me?’”

The couple had to wait for the right moment. Her partner, who knew the route they were headed down, told her to stay calm. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get you out of there,” she recalled him saying. When the group stopped to rest for eight days, he spied their chance.

They slipped away at night after their comrades had fallen asleep. They stole a broken motorcycle, fixed it up and sped away, arriving in the nearby town of San Juan Losada. “I finally felt at peace.”

That peace dissolved into anguish the next day. “We were terrified of both the army and the guerrillas. We had no money, nada,” Johana said. “We were there for two days without food until we were able to get in touch with my partner’s family.”

Johana has since spent her time taking care of her newborn and babysitting her nephews. Her partner has cycled through different jobs, she said: construction, running a dog kennel, working in a library.

Critics say the previous demobilization programs offered to women failed to meet needs such as childcare. Joshua Mitrotti, the ARN director, says the agency is working with FARC leadership to build solutions — for both men and women.

“They can decide what they want their life in society to be like,” said Mitrotti. “If we have a man who wants to be a family man, a father, great. And if we have a woman who wants to raise children and take care of the house, that’s fine too. But if we have a woman who wants to be a PhD and then become the president of the country, we will do what we can to help her.”

“What we want is to have a vision where men and women during the reintegration and reincorporation process can do what they dream of doing.”

The dream of becoming a doctor, at least for Johana, may not be realized any time soon. She misses the adrenaline of saving lives but believes she needs to be practical. Getting a medical degree is expensive and difficult, she reasoned. She expects that the skills she learned in the FARC will eventually be lost in time.

She now works in a beauty parlor and hopes to use the money she saves from it to create her own salon after she graduates from the L’Oreal training program in December.

She believes her transition to the outside world has been easier in part because the relationship with her partner, who helps her with household chores, hasn’t changed since they left the FARC. She also cherishes the friendships she’s fostered with attendees of the beauty program, and says that, for her, one aspiration was realized — becoming a mother.

She struggled to describe the joy when she first saw her baby’s face.