Sun, Oct 29, 2017 - Page 4 News List

FEATURE: Fighting to farming: Colombia’s former FARC fighters work to build new lives

AFP, LA MONTANITA, Colombia

A former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia fighter on Wednesday works on a pineapple field in a city built by them in Caqueta, Colombia.

Photo: Reuters

Felix Salcedo lost an arm fighting during Colombia’s half-century civil war that ended in August. Today, he uses his remaining arm to grow pineapples.

Like dozens of other former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas in his village, Salcedo is trying to earn a living legally after his rebel movement disarmed under a peace deal in December last year with the government.

Salcedo, 38, thinks back on the half of his life he spent with Colombia’s largest rebel force, which last month transformed into a political party.

An anti-personnel mine tore off Salcedo’s left arm, he says as he sprays pesticides at the plantation of 20,000 young pineapple plants.

Peace has not come easily to the nation where for decades the FARC controlled areas where coca leaf and cocaine production flourished.

Not only have there been delays in implementing the peace accord, but the ex-combatants face strong temptations to join dissident rebels, keep their weapons and traffic drugs.

Last week, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Andrew Gilmour said “reintegration is not going so well,” because “there is nothing” for returning FARC fighters.

La Montanita village, with its houses of metal sheeting and zinc roofs surrounded by emerald green plantations, is considered a success for the peace plan.

In the nation’s south, it is one of 26 demobilization zones for the 7,000 ex-FARC members.

His fighting days are over, but Salcedo has found renewed motivation from the esprit de corps that kept FARC going for 53 years.

“To be united, that’s what it takes to work, to carry out future projects,” he says of the pineapples, planted thanks to a fund created by 150 former rebels assisted by a public subsidy.

In this jungle zone that was a historic bastion of FARC, about 250 ex-rebels came together to start their lives anew in agriculture, fish farming or as cobblers.

Some have opened bookstores or bakeries.

The aim is to transform the demobilization zones into villages for former FARC members and their families, so they can put into practice the socialist ideals on which their movement was founded.

FARC and another rebel group were formed in 1964 to fight for land rights and protect poor rural communities.

Over subsequent decades, the conflict drew in paramilitary groups and state forces in what became a many-sided war fueled by drug trafficking.

It left about 260,000 people dead, 60,000 unaccounted for and 7 million displaced in Latin America’s longest conflict.

“This process we are going through is harder than the war itself... We have to invent [these projects] and a whole lot more,” said Danilo Ortiz, who spent 20 of his 34 years in FARC.

Now he repairs shoes.

“What we see here is a good example of how the reintegration process should be carried out,” said Jean Arnault, a Frenchman who heads the UN mission in Colombia.

The UN was tasked with supervising the guerrillas’ disarmament and return to civilian life.

However, elsewhere in the nation, ex-guerrillas have quit the reintegration program, deciding to find their own ways of making a living or to join dissident rebels.

Between 500 and 800 have turned to the dissidents, State Ombudsman Carlos Negret said.

“If people in the countryside don’t see state aid arriving, it’s going to be very difficult to have the conditions needed for the peace process,” he said.

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