CAQUETA RIVER, Colombia— The guerrillas scurried about in the dark wearing headlamps, giving me the impression of giant fireflies. It was 5 AM and I was still lying in my hammock, but around me members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were already packing-up their tents and organizing their combat gear. Within minutes we would be moving out to our next destination in the Colombian Amazon.
A few years ago, the scene would undoubtedly have been more tense and quiet as the rebels broke camp during the war. But now in times of peace the atmosphere is more relaxed. The troops joked with each other and shouted out the name of their pet macaw, which had gone missing over the night. At the edge of the small camp, a few tech-savvy rebels disassembled a large, portable satellite dish used for internet access.
“Where are the journalists?” One of the rebels hollered at me and photographer Victor Galeano. “Did they not get enough sleep?”
Victor and I had trekked out to the remote guerrilla camp in Colombia to witness an historic moment in our country’s long armed conflict: The FARC’s last march.
The rebels were crossing the Colombian countryside to move into a series of government-run camps known as “rural transition and normalization zones.” There they will hand in their weapons and prepare for civilian life by getting basic things like legal ID cards. They will also start to figure out how they will become a legal political party.
Victor and I joined one of the largest guerrilla divisions, the Southern Bloc, for a three-day journey from their jungle camps on the Caqueta River to a government run “transition zone” near the town of Puerto Asis, some 300 kilometers away.
The final march was a celebration of sorts; many of the FARC combatants were greeted warmly by villagers along the way. But the march was also somewhat foreboding, because many guerrillas have only known war, and civilian life represents a leap into the unknown.
The rebel organization, which has fought fiercely against the military and multinational companies for the past 52 years, will now enter politics in a country where hundreds of leftist activists have been assassinated over the years. Career guerrilla fighters will have to figure out how to make a living in times of peace, while still contributing to their “cause.”
It’s hard to guess how influential FARC rebel leaders will be as politicians, or whether their 6,000 troops will turn into loyal activists when freed from the regimented discipline of war.
“It gives you a lot of nostalgia to leave this beautiful jungle and the campesinos who backed our struggle for so many years,” said Danilo, a 27-year-old guerrilla on the march. “But we are doing this because we are committed to peace and we are committed to this country’s future.”
Our journey with the FARC began near La Solita, a village on the Caqueta river that lacks running water and basic health facilities. From there we boarded a boat that took us up river for about eight hours to another dusty village that is connected to the government transition zone by a long, bumpy road.
I was immediately struck by how young some of the guerrillas were. The unit of 40 rebels we travelled with was staffed mostly by combatants in their early 20s. There were also a couple female guerrillas under the age of 18.
Elisabeth, a short, indigenous combatant who sat next to me on the boat said she had joined the FARC when she was 12. Now, at 16, she looks forward to starting high school in the government camp, where the guerrillas are supposed to spend the next five months.
Steven, a burly rebel seated on my left, said he grew up in a wooden shack along the Caqueta River and joined the guerrillas when he was 13. The FARC gives its troops three meals a day, free healthcare and a sense of purpose. Those reasons alone are powerful recruitment tools in poor campesino villages where people have few opportunities other than subsistence farming.
Steven said he enlisted because he grew up visiting FARC camps where his mother helped with the cooking. “I got used to the guerrillas,” he said, without going into details of what he did during the war. “I enjoy this sort of life.”
As the boat sped up river, we passed hamlets where most homes were made of wooden planks holding up a zinc roof. At the bigger villages we passed, local residents stood on the pier with their cellphones, waving at the guerrillas and taking video of their final hours as an armed group.
The Caqueta region lies east of the Andes mountains where the Amazon begins. It has been settled largely by campesinos whose families were displaced from central Colombia by political violence and land conflicts in the 1950s.
The FARC started out as a collection of rural self-defense groups aimed at protecting campesinos from being forcibly displaced by large landowners and the military. But after the government tried to exterminate them, they evolved into a communist group that sought to topple the Colombian government.
At its peak, the FARC managed to take over a provincial capital, and detonate a powerful bomb in Bogota that killed dozens of innocent people. They eventually gained control over mountain corridors just a few hours march from the capital. But a series of military defeats in the early 2000s pushed the rebels into more remote areas, and created a stalemate. The guerrillas had no chance of toppling the government, but were too big to be exterminated by the military.
In late 2016, after four years of talks the guerrillas signed a peace treaty. In exchange for giving up their guns, the FARC got concessions that included 10 congressional seats, the promise of lenient sentences for war crimes, and a deeper commitment from the government to finance rural development projects for small farmers.
The concessions allowed the FARC leadership to agree to peace, and claim their decades-long struggle had not been in vain.
“We are not a defeated army,” said Gareca, a rebel and former student leader who has been in the FARC’s ranks since the early ’80s. “Now we will simply take our struggle from the military sphere to the political field.”
During our 8-hour boat ride, we stopped at a couple of towns along the river, where the rebels hugged and greeted relatives who, in some cases, they had not seen in years. At a muddy village known as Yapura, some 15 locals lined up at the pier to shake hands with the rebels, who disembarked to take a small break and bid farewell to the community.
While the guerrillas are despised by much of Colombia’s urban population, which sees them as terrorists and drug traffickers, the FARC still enjoy support in remote villages like Yapura.
In these neglected areas, the FARC have helped campesinos to build small roads and bridges. They’ve lent money to struggling farmers and acted as de facto law enforcement, sometimes capturing and executing thieves.
“They are very straight people,” said Juan Nepomuceno, an Afro-Colombian farmer who said he’s lived in Yapura for the past 40 years. “With them, there are no robberies around here.”
The FARC have also become famous for protecting coca growers from the military’s drug eradication efforts. They also collect “taxes” from drug traffickers to fund their insurgency.
“We are nervous about them leaving,” a woman told me when we reached Puerto Rosario, further up the river. “Who is going to protect the farms around here now?”
We spent the night at a school in Puerto Rosario. It may not be the most appropriate place to host a group of armed rebels, but it was the only building in the village that was large enough to shelter the group I was travelling with, which had grown to 290 as other guerrillas joined us at the village.
The following day, the guerrillas were loaded onto eight buses and nine pick-up trucks provided by the government to make the last leg of the journey. The guerrilla leadership had wanted their troops to ride on old “chicken buses” with open sides so they could wave at villagers as they passed through the countryside. But they got the buses that were available.
Steven, the rebel I had met on the boat, seemed to be fine with the transport arrangements.
“I’ve never been on such a fancy bus,” he said, as we boarded a 40-seater with air-conditioning and a loud sound system that would take us to our final destination.
Steven has never visited a large city, and had only started to use a cellphone last year after the fighting ceased and it was no longer dangerous for guerrillas to have phones in their camps. Now he has a Facebook profile and a Whatsapp account, where he describes himself as a “happy revolutionary.”
“I’d like to study systems engineering,” he told me. He uploaded pictures of the trip to his Facebook account as we made our way through the countryside.
Along the road to the transition zone we passed through more villages, were schoolchildren waved small white flags as the guerrilla caravan passed by. We passed three military bases and the guerrillas peeked curiously out the window to see if they could catch a glimpse of their former enemies.
At one of our last stops, I struck up a conversation with Victor Burgos, a pepper farmer who had come out to see the guerrilla caravan. Burgos, who is in his sixties, has lived with the war most of his life. He told me that while the guerrillas had committed “many excesses” and had taxed far too many businesses, he thought they had also “been good” for the area.
“They slowed down the multinationals,” Burgos said. He was referring to oil companies that have long operated in this area of south-west Colombia, and could expand their reach now that the FARC won’t be blowing up pipelines and kidnapping engineers.
“Those companies have generated too many environmental damages,” Burgos said. “We are worried about what happens next.”
We reached the transition zone by nightfall. As we got off the bus, another large group of villagers greeted the guerrillas. Again I heard stories about how the guerrillas had helped to make the area “crime-free” for local villagers. Again, I witnessed emotional reunions between guerrilla members and their friends and relatives.
The transition zone where the guerrillas will spend the next five months was supposed to include homes for the guerrillas, kitchens and a communal space where they will start to take job-training courses. Instead, what the guerrillas found was a barren landscape with some portable bathrooms. Only one house had been built.
The government has been notoriously slow in preparing these transition zones. And that makes some guerrillas suspicious of its willingness to carry out more complex parts of the peace accord, such as the development projects for coca growers and security arrangements for the guerrillas once they hand in their weapons.
But for the moment, most of the guerrillas are still on board with the peace accord, and much of the country is hoping that it holds up.
As the guerrillas unloaded their equipment at the transition zone, Danilo looked out into the dark, muddy field. It didn’t look too different from the jungle camp we had left two days earlier.
“I thought there would at least be a cement platform set up here,” he told me. “We are going to have to organize ourselves and work hard for this peace accord to get implemented.”