19 February 2014, 16:53

Dutch woman explains why she joined the FARC guerrillas

By Brittany Peterson

WASHINGTON (VR)—The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, is Latin America’s oldest, active guerrilla insurgency. It has fought the Colombian government for 50 years on issues of land rights and poverty. Yet ongoing peace talks in Havana, Cuba aim to put an end to this conflict. Radio VR’s Brittany Peterson had the rare opportunity to meet face-to-face with one of the guerilla fighters and members of the peace delegation, a Dutch woman known as “Alexandra." They met in a central plaza in Havana.

Part I: "It was not a decision I made at one moment"

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Peterson: Could you begin by telling us how it is that you got involved in the FARC in the first place.

Alexandra: Well the first time I came to Colombia was for an interchange for the university. So I had to be an English teacher for a year in Pereira, which is more or less a big city in Colombia. I came for the interchange and I also came for a lot of…looking forward to know Colombia, because Colombia is a beautiful country. And I started, in my spare time, I started to travel through Colombia, I went to Cali, I went to the Amazon, I went to a lot of places. And Colombia for tourists is really a beautiful, beautiful country. But after a while, after some months, I started to know, I started to get curious about the other Colombia, a hidden Colombia. A Colombia that not many people know about, which is the Colombia of 30 million of Colombians, who can’t enjoy the beauty of the country. And I started to investigate about the situation, about the big inequality in Colombia. I started to study a lot, to watch television. What happened? Why does the guerrilla exist? I had a lot of questions.

So then I met somebody who explained to me a lot about Colombia. About Colombia’s history. About why the guerrilla is fighting. And I also started to realize that in Colombia, there’s a big population who want things to change for them. Who want to enjoy, who want to live their lives, who want to have education, who want to have housing, healthcare, and that there’s a small elite, a small upper class in Colombia who is very small-minded, who just don’t want to give opportunities to the rest of the Colombians. So when I started to discover those things, I was like, something has to change. I knew that something had to change. I was convinced of it. But of course, I mean as a foreigner, it’s not normal, it’s very radical to say, like, “Well I am going to join the armed struggle.” And it was not a decision I made at one moment. It was a very gradual process. First I thought “I am going to work with grassroots movements in Colombia, or with union leaders.” But then I started to realize that all those people who fight for another Colombia, for a new Colombia, who have other ideas than the government are being threatened, are being put in jail, are being killed. That’s an everyday question. So when I discovered that, I went back to Holland first, then I came back, but finally I decided to join the guerrilla force.

AFP PHOTO/COLOMBIA, Bogotá: Undated handout picture released by Colombia's presidential press service showing Tanja Nijmeijer (R), a dutch woman that joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), posing at a guerilla camp in the jungle of Colombia. The picture was found on a computer that the government claims belonged to Jorge Briceno, the legendary leftist guerrilla chief in Colombia known by the alias "Mono Jojoy" who was killed two weeks ago in an attack by the Colombian armed forces. 

Peterson: How did you actually arrive to join the guerrilla force and talk about the beginning steps of that process to become a guerrilla fighter.

Alexandra: Well first I started to work, do little stuff, like write things for the guerrilla, and then I got more and more involved. I started to work in Bogota, I moved to Bogota…

Peterson: The capital of Colombia.

Alexandra: The capital of Colombia. And then I started to work in the militia. The militia in Colombia is like, it’s not guerrilla, they live in cities mostly but also in the countryside, and they just work with the guerrilla force. So I started to work as a militia in Bogota. And after some while, after some six months, they [asked] if I wanted to go to the jungle for a while. And I was like, why not? I could try it. I mean, I wasn’t thinking about joining the guerrilla force or staying in the jungle or something like that. It was just like, I’m going to do a course for some three or six months, and then I’ll see what I’ll do. And then when I arrived at the jungle, I saw all those guerrilla people and I saw the education that was given to them, and I saw how they were living, and I heard their stories about their lives. I saw how daily life in the guerrilla is. So after some two months, I decided to stay. I asked them, “Can a foreigner join the guerrilla?” And they told me that it was okay, that they were very glad with it because of course, I had a university degree already, and they were like, “Here we need a lot of education, because a lot of people come to the guerrilla and don’t know, don’t even know how to read or how to write. So it’s really important in Colombia, in the FARC, to give education to our fighters.

Peterson: Well right now you serve as part of the peace delegation here in Havana, and you’ve been here for over a year with the rest of the peace delegation. So you moved from being a guerrilla fighter in the jungle of Colombia, working on the ground, to being here negotiating peace and a future of political incorporation for your guerrilla organization. Talk to me about what that role means to you.

Alexandra: First of all, I’d like to say, of course, it’s a big transition, no? It’s a transition from the jungle to the city. But, it’s not that big a transition either, because we are in the jungle too. I mean, you have other daily tasks. But we are also a political-military force. We talk a lot about politics, about news, about everything that’s involved in it. And in the FARC, we have always wanted peace. I mean, we always say “We are not married to the weapons. The FARC took up the weapons because they had no other choice in 1964. But we have always said that we want peace. So, it’s like something you always keep in your mind. Like, someday, if the government wants to and they propose peace dialogues again, then we are going to have peace dialogues. And that’s what we’re doing here. But for us it’s just, of course, daily life is very different. But it’s just another trench.

Peterson: Are there any conditions that are different during these peace talks, because there have been previous peace talks. Do you believe that these will be successful?

Alexandra: I hope so. I hope so and I believe so. Because right now the situation is a little bit different. I mean, we have already come to two partial agreements, about agrarian reforms and about political participation for Colombian people. And that is very important to us. And that is something that has never happened before in the other peace talks. They had never come to any agreement. And that is something that gives a lot of optimism for the future.

Another thing that I see different right now in these peace talks is that the population—I don’t know if you know anything about social mobilization in Colombia—but in Colombia people are asking for a change and they want a change and they want peace too. And that’s very important too. The population supporting the peace talks.

Peterson: The peace talks are definitely advancing, but there are still offensives going on in this conflict. Are these actions, are these attacks hurting the peace process?

Alexandra: Well, first of all, I should say that the FARC, since the peace talks started, we have always proposed a bilateral ceasefire. The Colombian government doesn’t want to. They want to keep on waging war in Colombia and they just don’t want to. We have done a unilateral ceasefire for two times now. Christmas last year and Christmas this year, that was a unilateral ceasefire for a month. The Colombian government just keeps on waging war. Because, I don’t know. Because a lot of people in Colombia are also claiming, demanding a bilateral ceasefire because they want the war to stop, and the Colombian government doesn’t want to.

PART II: Role of international community and reaching a peace agreement

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Peterson: The US has a long history of involvement in this conflict in Colombia. For instance, it was a suggestion by the US to begin with the paramilitary in Colombia. In addition, over the last decade, millions of dollars have been invested in funding and training for the Colombian military. Talk to me about what the interests are in the US that the FARC be defeated.

Alexandra: Well the interest of the US is very clear. I mean, in the FARC it is nothing new. We have known for a lot of time that the US is involved in this war, and that this war is really lead by US soldiers, by the US army. For example, sometimes I had to scan the airplanes when I was in the jungle, and they used to talk in English. I mean, they are American pilots. So we have known that for a [long] time. You were already talking about the US giving advice about how to create paramilitary groups in Colombia, that was in 1962, but it has a long history in Colombia. And most people really don’t know a lot about it. It’s not only like the US government or the US army, it’s also multinationals. For example, in 1928, there was a huge massacre of the banana workers in Sienaga, which was the United Foods company, which today is Chiquita brands, I think. And today, it’s the same thing. I mean, the article in the Washington Post shows really what’s going on behind the scenes in Colombia.

Peterson: Let me take a minute to explain that. The article in the Washington Post recently revealed that the CIA was directly involved in providing the intelligence for a bombing that happened that targeted Colombian FARC leaders, over two dozen of them who were in Ecuador, and this in 2008.

Photo courtesy of the FARC

Alexandra: So the article in the Washington Post for us as FARC is really nothing new. I mean, there are some details we didn’t know about, but really, it confirms what we have already said for a lot of years. The thing is that I think, as we are qualified as aterrorist organization by the US and by Europe too, no one really listens to us. I mean, but we have denounced it for a lot of years. We have denounced that it is really sad that the Colombian army totally hands over its command to foreign army, which is a total lack of, let’s say, national pride. Like sovereignty.

Peterson: So how do the recent revelations of even more US involvement in this struggle affect how you trust, perhaps, the Colombian government during the peace negotiations? Trust that they are acting independently and for the interests of the Colombian people rather than for interests of external powers?

Alexandra: Well, as I have said before. I mean, it’s not really surprising to us. So it doesn’t have any influence over the peace talks. Because we already knew it. I mean, we know that the government of our country is a government who totally lacks feelings of sovereignty, feeilngs of loving their people and wanting to share their welfare with the people of Colombia. So we already know that, and we have already denounced it.

Peterson: Well much of the international community is also excited that this peace process in happening, and yet some are still quite critical of some of the techniques that the FARC has used in the past and that they are still using. What would you say to the international community that has been critical of some of the techniques you have used.

Alexandra: I would tell people that I think it’s very important right now to be very critical. I mean, the media in Colombia are biased media. And the rest of the world a lot of times only copies what those media say. So I think you could just look up things on the Internet. I’m working on an Internet page about the peace process, too, in English. So people can look up information in English, too. And I think that’s very important. Of course I know, and we all know in the FARC, that during 50 years of conflict, errors and mistakes have been made from both sides. And at these peace talks, we will have to talk about it. I mean, the fifth item on the agenda is victims. So we have to talk about that and we have to make those people feel that they are taken into account. That’s something which is very important for us as FARC, and I think also for the Colombian government.

Peterson: During these peace talks, there has been support, of course, from Cuba who is hosting them, and also from Venezuela and Chile and Norway as well. Are there any other roles that countries can do to help support this peace process?

Alexandra: Well, we think it’s very important and we think even after the peace process, if we are going to reach an agreement, the international community is going to be very important. Because they could control and verify the implementation of the agreements. But then we should start, from now on, to get people involved in the peace process. I also think that people, governments, but people in the world should feel more involved with the Colombian peace process. Because, in my idea, the fate and the life of Colombian people is everybody’s fate, and their problems are everybody’s problems. I mean, maybe someone who drinks his coffee for breakfast in the United States is drinking Colombian coffee, but they don’t ever think about Colombian farmers who are behind it, and who are really affected, for example, by the free trade agreements between the United States and Colombia. So it’s important to realize that and also important to realize that for Colombian people it’s really important, and for Latin America, to reach peace. To come to a peace agreement.

Peterson: Will there be any sort of international, independent organization that will be monitoring the implementation of the peace agreements should they be successful?

Alexandra: I think that would be a very good idea. We haven’t talked about it yet because I think it’s very early, also, to talk about it. But it would be a very good idea.

Peterson: Finally, is there any armed struggle anywhere else in the world that you identify with as a FARC member and look at as an example of a similar struggle that you are fighting right now in Colombia.

Alexandra: Well, we as FARC identify a lot with all the people in the world who struggle. I mean, for example, Occupy Wall Street, movements in Greece for example, the Community Party, people who are fighting against the system, and even ecological movements. All the movements who are thinking about another world and who want to have a better world for everybody.

Peterson: Thank you so much Alexandra for being with us today.

Alexandra: You’re welcome.

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