Diana María Meneses wakes up at 4 a.m. every morning, a habit she can’t shake from her years at war.
Back when she was a fighter in the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia (FARC), she would pull on black boots and camouflage, sling a rifle over her shoulder, and stand in formation with hundreds of other Marxist guerrillas, as the sun rose over the dense jungle.
Today, nearly five years after the FARC signed a peace deal with the Colombian government, Meneses rises at dawn not to a gun, but to relish a few moments of quiet before her four-year-old daughter, Luisa Fernanda, awakens and demands her attention.
Luisa Fernanda’s birth was part of a post-war baby boom among FARC guerrillas, who hadn’t been allowed to start families. The children — often dubbed “los niños de la paz,” or “children of peace”— came to represent hope for a civilian future after more than a half century of war.
“We hadn't even handed in our arms yet when she was born,” Meneses says, trying to corral her wandering daughter outside their modest home at a reintegration camp in the shadow of the Andes mountains. “So I prayed, saying, ‘My blessed lord, please don't let this peace fall apart.’”
But today the peace process is beginning to crumble. Programs to integrate the 13,000 demobilized FARC guerrillas into society have largely failed to provide for basic needs, while a wave of threats, attacks, and targeted killings makes their situation even more precarious. Now, whether they live in camps, cities or makeshift settlements, ex-combatants fear that their children, who once embodied a future of peace, will be thrust into the same cycle of violence that has plagued Colombia throughout its history.
Wearing a white shirt that reads “Todos por la paz” — everyone for peace — Meneses says, “I'm still scared that she's going to live through the same things I had to live through.”
Decades of conflict
From the age of nine, Meneses’ life was marked by conflict.
She grew up in a red-and-white house in northern Colombia with her eight siblings, the children of farmers. But her quiet childhood ended when right-wing paramilitary militias torched her home and forced her family to flee.
“When they destroyed our house, they destroyed everything,” she says. “If that hadn't happened, I would have never chosen the path I did, but I had to.”
After the attack, Meneses worked with her father in the fields instead of going to school. Those were years of abuse: verbal lashings from her mother, and molestation from her father’s boss.
Like many combatants, Meneses joined the FARC young, at 15 years old, in an attempt to escape dire circumstances. She shed her old life and chose the nom de guerre “Juliette,” a name she still answers to.
“I found a new family,” she says. “A family I never had anywhere else.”
Yet life among the leftist rebels is branded on her body. Scars run along her arms, bullet wounds dot her legs, and 12 screws hold together her knee, injured in combat.
The FARC was formed in 1964 by small farmers and land workers with the mission of fighting inequalities endemic in Colombian society. They declared themselves the people’s army, but decades in arms and lucrative gains from the cocaine trade distorted the group’s vision like a kaleidoscope.
The conflict between government forces, right-wing paramilitary groups, and the FARC left at least 260,000 dead and seven million people forcibly displaced. The guerrilla group became notorious for its cruel tactics.
“The war left many unresolved debts. There was child recruitment, kidnapping, and many painful stories,” says Camilo González Posso, president of Indepaz, a Bogotá-based think tank that tracks violence in Colombia. “It’s not easy to overcome these obstacles after more than 50 years of war.”
The Colombian government and FARC rebels signed an historic peace deal in 2016, which consisted of 578 points including victims’ reparations, rural development, and the transition of former combatants into society.
The peace accord split the country along ideological lines, paving the way for Colombia’s current leader, President Iván Duque, who campaigned against the contentious deal. Under Duque’s right-wing government, key facets of the agreement have gone unfulfilled, and violence has come roaring back in the countryside.
As of November 2020, four years after the agreement was signed, only 28 percent of its measures had been implemented, according to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. The United Nations and other international entities have urged the Duque administration to adequately carry out the peace deal.
Duque advisor Emilio Archila rejects such criticisms, describing them as the opposition parties’ political narrative. He says the current administration has rolled out a significant portion of the measures, despite being left with limited resources or plans by the previous administration of Juan Manuel Santos. “What we received was a puzzle of five thousand pieces to try and put together the implementation,” Archila told National Geographic.
Luisa Fernanda and her mother live in a two-room residence near a town called Anorí in northwestern Colombia. It is one of the 24 reintegration camps built to help demobilized fighters transition into society.
The encampment harbors hundreds of former rebels, who remain isolated from the society that they’re supposed to be rejoining. Living spaces consist of plywood sheets, concrete floors and tin roofing. Paved roads are miles away. Cell phone service is not available.
Yet Meneses, who separated from Luisa Fernanda’s father after he hit her while she was pregnant, has tried to make the camp feel like home. The word “LIBERTAD” (freedom) is splashed across the wall near the stove. A pink princess castle sits in the corner where her high-energy daughter plays.
But life remains tenuous. Packs of children spend the day pushing small bikes down the narrow concrete paths running between houses. Education is minimal and the COVID-19 pandemic has made childcare for babies and toddlers scarce. Meneses participates in “productive projects”— bag sewing, soap making, honey harvesting — in an effort to generate an income. But logistical setbacks have hampered profits.
Children like Luisa Fernanda are the ones who feel the disproportionate impact of the peace agreement’s failures, says Jairo Estrada, director of Colombia’s Center of Thought and Political Dialogue and a researcher studying the peace process.
“If their parents can’t earn enough to survive, what kind of situation awaits their children?” Estrada says. “That’s when meeting even the most basic needs becomes a problem.”
The camps were originally scheduled to shut down in August 2019, but the shabby homes constructed as a temporary fix have an increasingly permanent feel to them.
“This is no place for a child,” Meneses says.
What concerns many families more than poor living conditions is the uptick in violence.
At least 276 ex-combatants across the country have been assassinated since the signing of the peace agreement, according to Indepaz.
Ten-month-old Isabella Taborda was born on the same day her family was forced to flee their reintegration camp. After signing Colombia’s peace pact, the girl’s mother, Rosa Elidia “Patricia” Gutiérrez, 34, landed in the Santa Lucia camp with 355 other former rebels and family members, near the central Colombian town of Ituango.
Gutiérrez had already lost one baby during a previous childbirth. Her pregnancy with Isabella provided hope for stability in the reintegration camp with her partner, also an ex-combatant, and her mother. “It was like trying to start a new life, to erase the bad experiences from before,” she says. “The combat, the airplanes flying overhead. We tried to forget that life, and we tried to live a new one with this baby.”
But that was before the bloodshed, before the targeted killings at the camps.
The lush green mountains surrounding Ituango were once controlled by the FARC. When the guerrillas demobilized in 2016 as part of the peace process, government security forces were charged with taking control of the unoccupied zones and providing security for the ex-combatants living there.
But state security proved ineffective and soon after a smattering of paramilitaries, other guerrilla groups, and criminal gangs moved in. Former rebels became targets.
In 2017, months before Iván Duque was elected, anonymous threats against ex-combatants in the camp began to circulate. Shortly after, one ex-fighter was shot dead while walking on the dirt road just outside the encampment.
“They killed the first one of us, and that was when things began to collapse,” remembers José Antonio “Valentín” Zurique, a leader of the group of former rebels. “That’s when everything started. Threats, everything. Who is killing us? We don’t know. Who is making the threats? We don’t know, because there are so many armed groups.”
Eleven more were killed outside the camp. FARC leaders say that four family members of former rebels also were targeted, including two minors.
Ex-combatants and their families began to flee. Some returned to the small towns where they were born. Others went to big cities like nearby Medellín or Bogotá, the country’s capital. The whereabouts of about a third of the camp’s ex-fighters remain unknown. Zurique says some have given up on the peace accord, opting to join what has become known as the “FARC dissidents” in a renewed battle against the Colombian government.
Experts estimate that approximately 1,800 fighters either never demobilized or rearmed in the wake of peace process failures.
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In July, while Gutiérrez was at a Medellín hospital preparing to give birth, her family and others in the camp joined the exodus, landing in an unofficial camp 10 hours away near the town of Mutatá in the banana-growing region of Urabá.
“We had to give away our life, leave our things wherever we could and start from zero,” Gutiérrez says.
The family now lives in a world of plastic. They sit at a plastic table under a blue tarp that does little to cut the stifling heat. Plastic tiles separate them from the dusty earth below. A plastic Minnie Mouse training potty sits next to a crib Gutiérrez made out of wood she chopped in the nearby forest.
“It's hard for my little girl, but for me, it's very normal. We, in the mountains, lived in plastic,” Gutiérrez says, recalling her time as a guerrilla, as she lifted a spoonful of soup to her daughter’s mouth. “But I don't want her to struggle with the same things I did.”
The government constructed a set of temporary wooden homes for the encampment, but residents describe them as uninhabitable. They become furnaces in the afternoon’s sweltering heat, and those living in the camp have gone nearly a year without running water.
Still, this makeshift tent home is where Gutiérrez says she feels a sense of calm like never before. Here, she shares a life with her mother after leaving home at 13 to join the FARC. Here, she brushes the stray hairs from her daughter’s face. Isabella fulfills what was once a distant dream.
Here, she is not dead.
“You know you're not safe. Today, we're here. Tomorrow, we're not,” Gutiérrez says. “The biggest fear I have is leaving my mother, and my daughter without a mom.”
The heartbreak of separation
The FARC had strict rules against children. When women became pregnant, they were ordered to abort the baby or hand it off to someone else to raise. When her son Felipe was born, Dany Luz González, 38, made the painful choice to leave him with her mother. It wouldn’t be the last such choice she’d have to make.
She knew she couldn’t have him with her when she was a guerrilla. “Climbing around the mountains, it's not possible,” she says. “But you feel this emptiness, you feel as if you've left your whole heart behind.”
González visited Felipe when it was safe but sometimes, she’d go as long as a year without seeing him. Felipe’s father, also a rebel fighter, was killed by right-wing paramilitary militias.
After the war, González assumed she’d be able to reunite with her son. She skipped the camps and headed to Medellín, a city of nearly three million people, where she thought she could find work. The plan was to have Felipe, now eight, join her once she got established.
She helped start a market run by ex-FARC women selling goods — honey, coffee, and beer — from productive projects. But the market sits empty most days, and she says the monthly allowance of 800,000 pesos (approximately $215) provided by the government is barely enough to scrape by.
City life is difficult for former fighters, explains Jairo Estrada, the peace process researcher. In the camps, former rebels live in an atmosphere similar to their past experience — in a collective group in rural areas. Those in the cities go it alone.
“When an ex-combatant goes somewhere to look for work, they are looked at as if they’re a danger,” Estrada says. “That puts their own lives in danger.”
“This is like an ember and with a little bit of kindling, it catches fire.”
The fear of violence and continued economic insecurity has kept González from bringing her son with her. She tries not to collect possessions, she says, because what happens if she has to leave? She even got surgically sterilized: Given the instability, she knew she would never want to have another child.
With only brief visits every few months with her son, she feels the gap between them widen. “This love a child has for their mother isn't the same as the love for the mom who sees them every day,” she says. “He hugs me and calls me ‘mama’ and tells me ‘I love you,’ but you can tell, in reality, his grandma is his mama to him, she's his everything.”
She clings to the small moments. Every evening around 6 p.m., she hops off the bus high in the mountains as the sun sets over a city that doesn’t feel like home, pulls out her phone and calls him, trying to feel the warmth of him through a small screen.
“Do you miss me?” she asks every night like a prayer, not entirely sure she’ll like the answer.