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Coping in the jungle: As Colombia peace nears, rebels tend to their wounds

COLUMBIA: Sofia writhed from the pain of her first combat wound – a mortar blast in mid-February had pierced the 18-year-old guerrilla with shrapnel.

politics, military, violence, death,


AFP

Sunday 10 July 2016, 03:00PM


Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) member Sofia, who was injured by a mortar explosion, is helped by FARC nurse Olga at a camp in the Magdalena Medio region. Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) member Sofia, who was injured by a mortar explosion, is helped by FARC nurse Olga at a camp in the Magdalena Medio region. Photo: Luis Acosta/AFP

“We didn’t expect it,” the young woman muttered as she was being treated in a rebel encampment in the Magdalena Medio region of north-western Colombia.

She is among what the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) hope will be the last casualties of its long insurgency against the state.

The FARC has been observing a unilateral truce for the past eight months, and the government has suspended air attacks, while rebel and government negotiators hammer out a peace accord in Havana to end the more than 50-year-old conflict.

But deep in the Colombian jungle, the FARC is still tending to its wounded.

Sofia grimaces as Olga, a 30-year-old rebel nurse, yanks off the bloodstained bandages from her thigh to inspect the wound.

Sofia enlisted in the insurgent ranks at the beginning of the year, and had never been in combat when she was felled by the mortar.

She and four fellow guerrillas were wounded but they survived.

At first, they didn’t know exactly what had happened.

The FARC’s top leader, Timoleon Jimenez, told reporters that the army attacked them as they headed to a meeting with a FARC negotiator who was to brief them on the Havana talks.

“The army knew of our presence,” said Sofia.

The Colombian army declined to comment on the incident.

Thousands of combatants on both sides have been wounded or maimed in the conflict which has claimed the lives of some 260,000 people, many of them civilians, since the FARC’s founding in 1964.

The conflict has also involved a second guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, as well as right-wing paramilitary bands and drug traffickers.

Julian, who has a stitch in his neck, is proud of having convinced Sofia to join the FARC. Now lovers, they both were wounded in the mortar explosion. It was he who lifted her in his arms after she went down.

“It is very difficult to think you may be the last to die in the war, especially with a peace process underway,” said Julian, who is 23.

Ombre Phuket

Near Sofia’s bed, 18-year-old Michael sits on a pad, all smiles even though a projectile nearly severed three fingers on his left hand in the same attack.

“We are under orders to avoid [contact with the enemy] because the peace process is under way,” he said, looking down at his bandaged hand.

Ending the war has not been easy. More than three years in, negotiators admitted they would miss a self-imposed March 23 deadline for drafting a comprehensive agreement, with differences over disarmament and other issues still unresolved.

Eight years ago, Enrique was not as lucky as his wounded comrades.

He lost his left arm in an air strike, and since then the guerrilla chief, who has spent 16 of his 33 years in the FARC, wears the rebel group’s colours just above his stump.

“We suffered a lot of losses because of the very rawness of the conflict,” he recalled.

Throughout it all, the FARC buried its dead and healed its wounded under extreme conditions, far from the eyes of its enemies.

Enrique recalled that in the attack in which he lost his arm, three of his comrades were killed.

Today, he carries a holstered pistol and employs a one-hand balancing act to operate his radio telephone.

What will become of the FARC’s maimed fighters once a peace agreement is signed?

“I think that if we’ve been marked by the toughest part of the war, the moment will come when we choose a speciality that will allow us to have a role in the new process,” he said.

But Enrique doesn’t really know what he will do once he surrenders his weapons, and obediently awaits instructions from the rebel commanders negotiating the peace.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas take classes on peace in the same jungle where the FARC has fought for decades but otherwise follow the unchanging routine of camp life.

They get up before dawn and at night they slip through the humid jungle on long marches. They cut firewood, cook rice and pork, and wash as well as they can in streams.

They rarely stay for long in one place.

 

 

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