A Dutch Guerillera The Foreign Face of FARC's Civil War
Part 2: Encountering Death
It is a Friday evening, a few days after our first meeting. Nijmeijer is walking through Calle Obispo in the old section of Havana. The bars are open, music is blaring into the street and people are wearing T-shirts and shorts. Nijmeijer doesn't like the heat. She prefers a cold and windy climate. She also complains that her bed is too soft, and says that she sleeps on the floor with a wool blanket every night. She gets up at 5 a.m. every day and takes a 40-minute run. She says that she is still a soldier.
As tourists dance salsa in the street, Nijmeijer talks about the war. "I had to beg them to let me fight with them," she says. She was constantly treated with kid gloves, which upset her, she says. If you want recognition in FARC, she explains, you have to be able to be able to put up with hardship.
Her basic training lasted three months. She learned to allow her body to drop to the ground and open her mouth when she heard the bombers coming, to offset the pressure and prevent the eardrums or lungs from bursting. She learned how to make bombs, and how to take cover. Hearing is a crucial element of life in the jungle, where the tree canopy is so thick that the guerillas have to rely on their ears to detect approaching helicopters and aircraft. Once, when she got lost at night, she crouched on the ground and waited for six hours until dawn. Her life became a series of experiments with her own fear, and she felt stronger with each successful outcome.
When Nijmeijer goes to see a doctor in Havana, she is diagnosed with tinnitus. The doctor advises her to avoid bombs and gunfire. "I can't promise that," she replies.
Nijmeijer's next step was an encounter with death. It happened on March 27, 2010, when she was attending an officers' course in the mountains. During the day, the attendees were given lessons in revolutionary philosophy and political economics. They bathed in the river in the afternoon, and on the evening of March, Nijmeijer had been assigned to cook dinner -- rice and potatoes -- in an enormous pot for the 54 men and women in her company. Suddenly they heard the sound of the military's Super Tucano helicopters and aircraft, built to fight the guerillas. The commander ordered the group to retreat.
'I Cried A Lot'
Nijmeijer crouched in a trench she had dug the day before. She could see the pot she had used to cook the meal. She had learned never to leave anything behind, so she jumped up, grabbed the pot and hurried up the hill. A young man fell down in front of her and turned around. "Don't let me die," he whispered. He had been hit by machine-gun fire. She pulled out the infusion kit in every FARC rebel's backpack and plunged the needle into his body, but he had already stopped moving. The next bombardment began a few hours later.
In a video message, Nijmeijer said: "And if the Colombian army and the Colombian government still believe that I was kidnapped and taken to this place, they should come to rescue me. And we'll greet them here -- with Kalashnikovs, mines, shells, everything."
At night, as she listened in on the radio communications between American fighter pilots and heard exploding bombs, which she could increasingly tell apart, it eventually dawned on Nijmeijer that this was where she would die. It's the story she tells today. There would be no coffin in her grave, she thought, and her comrades would have to choose a spot under large trees with a canopy thick enough to obscure the ground and prevent them from becoming an easy target. An honor guard would stand over her grave in the first night.
"Merry Christmas," she told her family in a video message. "I believe we are fighting for a good cause. I cried a lot, because I miss you so much. But I also know that I'm doing the right thing here, and that I'll stay here. I won't leave."
She was kept busy -- collecting protection money, staging attacks on buses, interrogating three military contractors from a US company whose plane had made an emergency landing in the jungle near a FARC camp. "If our government wanted to, you would be dead in six months," one of the men said.
"But you know that prisoners of war are the first to die in an invasion," she replied. It was statements like that that triggered the Interpol search.
Waiting was also part of her life. Friends came and went. Pointless orders were issued. There were marches through the jungle and corrupt commanders, and the ideals were beginning to crumble. Nijmeijer was homesick and missed things like cheese, soccer and bread. When Nijmeijer found a telephone in a captured farmhouse, she called her mother. As her parents wept, Nijmeijer told them that she was doing well and happy to hear their voices again. As punishment for making the call, she was given 10 days of kitchen and latrine duty, ordered to dig a garbage pit and write 10 pages about what she had done. FARC has strict rules, and any lapse is punished. A phone call abroad is a lapse, because it puts the group in danger.
When soldiers attacked the rebels' camp in 2007, they found Nijmeijer's diary, an old school notebook with a heart on the front cover. On a day in November 2006, she wrote, in longhand: "I'm tired. Tired of FARC. Tired of people. Tired of living together. Tired of not having anything for myself. I've been in this boat for four years now. Guard duty, gymnastics, conversations, arguments, asshole commanders. I miss my boyfriend. And I feel useless here. I'm doing a boring course with Karel, which is supposed to prepare us for a city mission. But I know that I'll never leave the jungle. I'm stuck here. And then I don't really want to leave, either. I just want to hike, laugh, fight and cook meals, without any problems."
What, though, is she fighting for? What are her ideals?
The former presidential palace in Havana, once the seat of government of the former dictator Fulgencio Batista, is now a museum of the revolution. An old assault gun stands in front of the building. Legend has it that Fidel Castro fired the gun from land and sank the US warship Houston, which was part of the assault fleet in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Inside the museum, tourists stumble around the exhibition as if they were in a tunnel of horrors at an amusement park. Nijmeijer walks up the steps, past the bullet holes and past a miniature bronze statue of Castro.
Guerillas are invisible armies. They fight wars of a forgotten time, wars that are hardly ever winnable. Most guerilla wars last about 10 years, although the Cuban revolution was a military success after only two years. The war in Colombia has already been underway for 50 years.
"Our moment just hasn't come yet," says Nijmeijer. Then she walks into a room dedicated to Che Guevara, her role model. He is depicted as a wax figure climbing out of an artificial jungle. The day of his death is a national holiday in Cuba and his face appears on millions of T-shirts. Hardly anyone knows the leader of FARC.
Che Guevara's carbine is exhibited in a glass case. "We have the same one," says Nijmeijer. She talks about firearms, the AK-47, M16 and AR-15. "I'm a good marksman," she says. For the other visitors, the museum exhibitions are about as current as the French Revolution, but for Nijmeijer they are reminders of everyday life. Her struggle is not a museum.
The question is what will become of her movement. Will the rebels be worshipped as heroes, like Guevara, or will they go down in history as drug dealers? Every missile and every tank used by the revolutionaries is on display in Cuba. What will the FARC leave behind? She ponders the question. They don't have any tanks or ships. One item that occurs to her is the towel used by FARC founder Manuel Marulanda. They still keep that, she says.
'We're In a War'
The lyrics of a song Nijmeijer has written for the guitar read: "No one despairs here. We are full of morale, of fighting morale, of fighting morale, full of morale." She wants to remain with FARC, even if she had many opportunities to flee. Because the FARC soldier who accompanied her to the first meeting is not her guard but her boyfriend. She can walk around the city alone, and she could go to the Dutch embassy at any time. But she doesn't want to.
A few days later, we meet for another conversation on Plaza Vieja in the old city. Nijmeijer watches the pigeons on the cobblestones and drinks coffee. As we are speaking, a bomb explodes in Pradera in western Colombia, killing a man and injuring 61 other people. A week later, FARC assumes responsibility for the bombing and issues an apology. Dozens of splinter groups challenge the movement's claim to leadership. FARC no longer has everything under control. It isn't even clear whether it can keep the peace that is now being negotiated in Cuba.
Why do women at FARC have to abort their babies?
"Because they are soldiers. Children would keep us from fighting. Before joining FARC, every woman knows that she cannot become pregnant. But if she does, things get complicated."
Why does FARC install land mines? "I feel bad about the children who die in the explosions, but we're in a war. We have to find ways to defend ourselves."
Do you support the drug trade? "We don't grow cocaine. All we do is tax the cocaine dealers."
Why do you kidnap people? "We haven't done that since 2013. In the past, people were abducted for financial reasons. If we take anyone now, they're prisoners of war."
What about extortion? "There is no extortion, but there is a revolutionary tax. We take it from the rich if they have more than $1 million."
She has a response to every critical statement. Her ideological framework works perfectly.
"I move like a fish in water," she wrote in her diary. "The jungle is my home. FARC is my life, my family."
On one evening, Silvio Rodríguez is giving a concert in front of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. The audience, lit by floodlights, consists of thousands who have come to hear the balladeer of the Cuban revolution. A white Mercedes bus has brought the guests from Colombia to the concert. Young girls offer Nijmeijer their lipstick and pour glasses of rum. Rodríguez is singing "Ojalá," her favorite song. "I wish the dawn would not emit screams that rain down on my back. I wish that death, at least, would take me along, so that I would no longer see you constantly." She can sing every verse. For a moment, it's as if she were an ordinary audience member, a tourist from the Netherlands with a house and three children.
There are a few things she would like: To see "Avatar" in 3-D, to walk into a clearing one day and not feel threatened. And to make a trip to the Netherlands to see her family again.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Foreign Face of FARC's Civil War
- Part 2: Encountering Death