National Geographic : 2018 Jan
the healing of colombia 89 guerrillas. The settlements are part of the 297- page agreement so laboriously negotiated be- tween guerrilla leaders and the government. They’re supposed to contribute to a smooth transition into modern-day consumer society for some 7,000 fighters, now that they have laid down their weapons. Despite the ramshackle quality of the dormitories—one wallboard room per guerrilla or guerrilla couple, toilet and shower stalls across the way—Alex was truly pleased with his new surroundings. All of 25, painfully shy of strangers and completely innocent of the ways of capital- ism, he looked and acted more like a teenager, as if his real life had stopped when he ran away from his family to join the FARC at age 15. “No money, no work, no chance to study—my fami- ly was poor,” he explained. He said he had never had a moment of regret, but one wonders how much his situation improved: During his 10 years as a guerrilla fighter he never slept under a roof, saw his family, or used money. “Looking back, those were years of suffering and hardship,” he said. Sleeping most often in a hammock pro- tected from the rain by a plastic sheet, bedtime was at six every day lest a conversation, a giggle, a lit cigarette give away the group’s location. Radios weren’t allowed, because an infiltrator might easily place a microchip locator in one. Crisscrossing the country with hundred-pound backpacks, guerrillas relied on rice as their main sustenance. On his first day out of training, Alex said, his group ambushed a military post, and he saw three of his young comrades die. “One feels the change most in the tranqui- lidad,” he said. And then there are the dormi- tories: “Now we each have an opportunity to organize our little room as we like. Our bed- times have changed, because some like to watch their telenovela, others their soccer game.” He worried that a monthly government subsidy of about $300 per demobilized fighter would be hard to administer properly, but the money was being deposited into a nearby bank. “Now that we’re civilians,” he said, “we have to learn to manage ourselves, and we know that out there you need money for everything.” if the goVernment had been bolder, or rich- er, or less hemmed in by loud opposition to the peace agreement in Congress and among Colom- bians in general, each former combatant would have received a far larger amount of money— enough to set up a curbside arepa stand, or finish school, or in other ways help ensure that a person reentering society from the equivalent of Mars, with only the clothes on his or her back, would find legality more attractive than a job with one of the criminal bands now hiring. The monthly subsidy will end in July of 2019, as will the demo- bilization territories, where the United Nations verification mission and the national police are ensuring safety and protection. It was almost un- fair to ask Alex, still adjusting to the basics of his new life, how he saw the future after this transi- tion period, but clearly it was something he and his mates discussed constantly. “What I worry most about is security,” he said immediately. In the mid-1980s failed negotiations with the FARC included a truce, an amnesty, and the opportunity to create a political party, which was called the Unión Patriótica. Within the dec- ade more than a thousand party militants had been assassinated, mostly in broad daylight and, instructively, in public spaces. Now the FARC is transforming itself into a new party, which is sup- posed to guide the ex-fighters, win elections, and lead Colombia into the new world Alex thinks his years of struggle have made possible. When he’s speaking in what might be considered his hero- ic voice, Alex muses about a future of collective effort and collective joy, but caught off guard, he dreams aloud about the little farm he hopes FARC leaders will arrange for him and the nurs- ing degree or baking certificate to which others in his group aspire. He’d like to study too, finish ele- mentary school and get his high school diploma. On the farm? He hesitates. Life is complicated and uncertain for everyone these days, but who knows? It might all work out in the end. j Alma Guillermoprieto, who lives in Bogotá, writes often about Latin America for the magazine. Photographer Juan Arredondo, formerly a chemist, is also based in Bogotá. This is his first National Geographic story.