San José de Oriente, Colombia, Mar 6 – With their rifles, green fatigues and black rubber boots, the women fighters of the FARC rebel force have become one of the international faces of Colombia’s civil war.
Soon the photographs that have fascinated world media will be for the history books. Thousands of them are preparing to lay down their guns and return to civilian life.
After more than half a century of conflict, the FARC’s disarmament is due to be completed by May under a peace deal with the Colombian government.
They have plenty of plans for what to turn to afterwards, other than rifles.
– Back to school –
Manuela Canaveral, 22, hopes to go back to school.
Having led civil protests while in high school, she dropped out after receiving threats from right-wing paramilitaries, one of numerous sides in the conflict.
She joined the FARC at 15, she says, “to protect my life.”
As part of its campaign for rural land rights the communist rebel group has killed and kidnapped.
But for Canaveral, membership in the group afforded her freedom as well as protection.
“As a guerrilla I learned that we can wear our hair short and it doesn’t make us any less women,” she said.
“We have even more chance of making it than men, because we can do several things at once,” she laughs.
She works on the FARC’s radio station, broadcasting tunes such as “Mother of a Guerrilla.”
“This one is for all the mothers in Colombia,” she says into the microphone, sitting under the camouflaged tarpaulin that covers the station’s makeshift studio.
But her DJ days will soon end. She is currently broadcasting from a temporary base in one of the demobilization zones where the FARC have gathered to disarm.
Next, she says: “I want to get my high school diploma and study philosophy, communication or education. There are lots of things I want to do.”
– Learning to heal –
In a cap and red nail paint, Erica Galindo, 39, feels she has lived “a whole lifetime” as a guerrilla — 24 of her 39 years.
The FARC taught her nursing skills. She wants to get an official qualification to continue nursing when she becomes a civilian again.
“It is my dream to work with the poorest people, bring them human warmth and heal them,” she said.
Maritzal Gonzalez, 54, has been a member of FARC for 40 years, participating in a war that authorities say has killed at least 260,000 people.
Born across the border in Venezuela, she joined the FARC to escape poverty.
She has cooked and cleaned for her fellow guerrillas, and has stood guard with gun in hand.
Now she smiles as she plans to return to the family she left behind.
“I am swapping the rifle for the broom,” she says.
– Going into politics –
About 40 percent of the FARC’s 7,000 members are women.
Some of them will stick with the FARC in its new manifestation: It is due to transform into a political party under the peace deal.
“Afterwards? I’ll carry on with the political movement that the FARC is going to become. I’ll go where they tell me,” says Adriana Cabarrus, 38, a FARC guerrilla for the past 18 years.
She has been entertaining herself in the demobilization camp by dancing to cumbia music in her boots with her companions.
“I just want to live in a free country, a country of social justice,” she says.
“Perhaps I will just stay here in this area. This could turn into a new village.”