For some Colombian guerrilla fighters, the rebels offered an escape

The World
A Colombian female leftist rebel looks at the photo of legendary guerrilla leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara in a temporary rebel headquarters in San Vicente del Caguan in 1999.

By the time Nelcy Soto managed to make it out of the house, her husband had already disfigured her face. She had tried running away before, but he always managed to find her and bring her back.

This time, she had some help. “My brother told me: leave. Leave. Leave your children and go.”

She headed for the mountains. She was in pain, but she knew this terrain like the palm of her hand. She’d grown up around here. She has good memories of her childhood. But that ended when she was 14.

That’s when one of her brothers secretly sold her to a nearby landowner, in exchange for a small plot of land. Soto's mother eventually found her, but the man had already raped her. In rural Colombia at the time, that meant one thing: “My mom said, 'No, I can’t take you back. He’s your owner now. You have to live with him,'" Soto says.

"He treated me like a dog. And I became enraged with men. I lived almost 10 years with him. I had four children with him. When he wasn’t around, I would grab this little machete and go whack around the mountain. To let out the rage of seeing myself there, a prisoner. With no one to help me.”

It’s hard to picture anyone laying a hand on Soto. There’s a toughness to her, the way she sneers, the way she stands with her thick torso puffed out and her fists balled. But he did lay a hand on her, he did it all the time. And then one day he hurt her so bad, her brother told her to run, and she did. Straight to the FARC.

"And I went to get them," Soto adds. "All I wanted was revenge, for the things he did to me. I told them what had happened.”

Like a lot of Colombians I speak to, Soto never refers to the Revolutionary Armed Forces by name. She only says ellos — "them" — the leftist guerrillas who have been locked in decades of war with the government. Soto had spent enough time angrily swinging her machete in the mountains to know where they were. The FARC kicked her husband off his land, and took Soto in. And that’s how she became a guerrilla fighter, enlisted in the brutal civil war that has been tearing Colombia apart for 52 years.

While war is still largely considered a man’s domain, the Colombian conflict is unique in that a large percentage of rebel and paramilitary fighters are women. Some of them go into the conflict motivated by ideology. Others have stories like Soto's — they found protection or power in the guerrillas.

"In areas under FARC’s territorial control, they administered justice,” explains professor Kimberly Theidon, who teaches international humanitarian studies at Tufts University and has done extensive work in Colombia. “We may not think of [it as] justice as we would define it. But for cattle wrestling, for husbands who were beating wives, for abusive relationships, people would go to the guerrillas in hopes that they would do something to help them extract revenge, bring an end to the violence, etc.”

The cycle of bloodshed might be near an end, though. There is a ceasefire, and the government and Marxist rebels are having peace talks, though so far they’ve been shaky. Peace might bring an entirely new set of challenges, however. If it happens, peace would bring more than 17,000 guerrilla fighters out of the mountains, jungle and urban cells.

For years the Colombian government has had a program to reintegrate rebels into society — it’s received millions of dollars from the US government. The program claims success, but for women who have demobilized, transitioning back into society is a battle of its own.

To begin with, a lot of women like Soto felt safer with the FARC than in their own homes. “It was a good time. I mean, sometimes you suffer, sleeping out there. But, it’s a good time. You have a new family.”

There have been rampant accusations of sexual violence and abuse, but Soto has nothing bad to say about the group. She spent her five years with the FARC mostly smuggling supplies from the city to the mountains. It wasn’t until she got word that her mother was sick that she left. She moved to Florencia, a city on the edge of the Colombian Amazon, to be with her.

Once she was away from FARC, she enrolled in the government program to reintegrate militants like her back into society. It can take six years and starts in a halfway house with psychological support. There’s a stipend for people who enroll in education or vocational training. Soto, for example, learned how to extract rubber from trees.

When I meet her, she’s at the very end of the program. In a few days, she’ll be done. I visit her small house at the top of a hill, in one of those neighborhoods made up of shacks piled upon shacks, held up by improvisation and prayer. She hates how crowded it is. She didn’t even know what to do with her new freedom at first. Suddenly, she didn’t belong to a man or an armed group.

She hesitates before telling me this next part — about how she met someone when she first arrived. “I got here and I met her. I worked as a waitress. She sold coffee in the park.” They got to know each other, and at first, Soto was flabbergasted. “I would ask myself why is this happening? Why do I like her? How does it work. Like how do you make it work?” She breaks down laughing.

They fell in love.

Over time, Soto became more comfortable in her own skin and came out as a lesbian. Now, she lives with her girlfriend and her kids. In a few days, once she graduates from the program, she wants to take them all back to the countryside.

“The city feels heavy. In the countryside, I feel so much calmer. But it’s been — oh man — seven or eight years since I have been back to the countryside. All this time, I’ve been enrolled in the reintegration.”

Soto wants to go home. But where is that? Is it the place where her own family sold her? Is it the land belonging to the man who bought her and brutalized her? Is it in the mountains, with the armed group that took her in? The truth is, she doesn’t have a home or any land to call her own.

The recent peace agreement pledged to help women like Soto get their own land. But that agreement fell apart. Theidon, the Tufts University professor, says, moving forward, no peace process can really work if the former rebels don’t have a place to call their own. “Land is a feminist issue. Women having rights to own it, to inherit it, to profit from it. And, until we figure out how to do a better job of that in Colombia, then we also have to ask, what are people and women going back to, when they are going back to rural areas?”

But many here feel that’s asking for a lot. After all, FARC is responsible for thousands of killings, kidnappings, disappearances. People like Soto, they’d argue, who joined a guerrilla organization that terrorized the nation, deserve nothing but punishment. But with the peace deal in limbo, and the war not necessarily over, a lot of Colombians — Soto included — just want to get on with their lives.

“On Saturday at dawn, we’re going to the countryside. We’re leaving the city,” Soto says. She’s beaming as she tells me this. An ordeal that began when she was 14 is finally over, or so she hopes.

She’s going to put her new skills to use at a rubber tree plantation, a booming industry in Colombia these days. She says the work shouldn’t be too rough. The pay is OK. She’s betting on the landowner being OK with her being gay. She says I’ll have to stop by someday for sancocho — "homemade stew."

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