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In jungle camps, Colombia rebels take peace lessons

MAGDALENA MEDIO VALLEY (Colombia), Feb 27 — In their secret jungle camps, Colombia’s Marxist rebels used to learn how to fight.

They still carry the rifles and machetes they have used for half a century in their war against the Colombian government. But now troops of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are sitting down for classes on how life will be once they lay down their weapons.

Thousands of miles away at talks hosted by Cuba, their commanders are negotiating a peace accord they hope to sign with Bogota in March. Meanwhile, here in the jungle, FARC soldier Tomas, 37, is acting as an instructor, explaining to his fellow recruits what is at stake. AFP was granted exceptional access by FARC commanders to this mountain camp in northwestern Colombia.

After his 14 years spent marching and fighting in this jungle, Tomas must now convince his comrades to work to achieve the FARC’s aims by political means. “Some of them are looking forward to it. They are pleased about it, optimistic,” he said. “But others are keeping quiet about it. They are a bit reserved. “How do we sever ourselves from the weapon we have carried for so many years?”

Makeshift classrooms

Classes like these are going on in various camps around the country that are home to the FARC’s 7,000 members. At this camp in the Magdalena Medio region, a mustachioed commander in a green beret orders ranks of troops to sit down side by side. They have built the makeshift classroom themselves, cutting down trees to make tables. Among the fighters are young women and boys scarcely out of puberty, with rifles by their sides and pistols on their hips.

With the sun beating down on him, Tomas sits by his laptop computer and explains the issues covered by the peace talks. “The problem, companions, is about the land. Access to the land must be democratized,” he said. Some of the young recruits yawn and shake their heads as they struggle to follow the presentation. Older troops listen more closely and take notes, occasionally raising their voices to say “excuse me, comrade” and ask a question.

Among the elder members is Cornelio, who has spent 33 of his 55 years fighting in the FARC. He fears anarchy could break in the regions it controls, if its fighters disarm. “They talk to us about laying down our weapons. They talk to us about turning into a political party,” he said after the class. “So the question we ask ourselves is: what will happen when we put the weapons away and delinquency breaks out?”

No more killing

The FARC started in the mid-1960s as a peasant uprising against perceived state oppression and took over areas where state control was absent. They are classed as a terrorist organisation by powers including the United States and the European Union. The conflict has ground on for decades as a territorial dispute between various armed groups.

Now, as negotiators close in on a March 23 deadline to sign an accord, Latin America’s last armed conflict could soon be over. But lingering disagreements over disarmament and other points in the negotiations still risk delaying the accord.

The conflict has killed 260,000 people and displaced 6.6 million, according to the United Nations. Even with the prospect of peace, some FARC members are afraid. Franky, 27, has been a FARC soldier since he was 17. “We hope they don’t let us down,” he said.  “That we don’t lay down our weapons and then find they carry on killing us just for the sake of it.”

Then, there is the risk from within, said Tomas. For some of the younger recruits, politics is far less exciting than having rifles in their hands. “We have to guarantee that, when we lay down our arms, those kids get down to the work of political activism,” he said. And “that is a real challenge.”