A Dutch Guerillera: The Foreign Face of FARC's Civil War
Tanja Nijmeijer of Holland spent more than 10 years fighting with the rebel group FARC in the jungles of Colombia. More recently, she has been part of the guerillas' peace negotiating team in Cuba. What drives her?
Until recently, there had long been only two possible fates awaiting Tanja Nijmeijer: a grave in the Colombian jungle or a cell in an American maximum-security prison. Nijmeijer has never had any doubts as to which option she would prefer. "I will die in the jungle," she says.
Nijmeijer is wanted by Interpol for three cases of kidnapping, the use of a firearm during a violent crime and supporting a terrorist organization.
On this afternoon, she arrives a few minutes late to our agreed meeting place, a large hotel in the Cuban capital of Havana. Behind the tinted windows of the hotel lobby, we see her walking up the driveway. Her back is bent and she walks slowly, accompanied by a bodyguard from the Colombian guerilla group FARC, of which she is a member. Perhaps his job is to protect her, or perhaps it is to make sure that she doesn't run away.
FARC, one of the world's oldest rebel groups, punishes desertion with death. The sliding glass door opens and her narrow mouth twists into a smile. "How is this supposed to work?" Nijmeijer asks.
She wants to know which of the five languages she speaks will be used in the interview and then orders a cappuccino. When the men in the lobby turn around at the sound of her harsh laugh, they see a 36-year-old woman with soft eyes and plucked eyebrows, wearing earrings and a dress with a floral pattern. Her hands shake during the first hour of the interview as she smokes. Hollywood cigarettes. A tennis match is on TV in the background. Nijmeijer talks about the trick to making a smokeless fire in the jungle.
It was long impossible to meet with Nijmeijer. She lived and fought in the jungle, in an area the size of Sweden, and most of the time she was fleeing from the Colombian army. She was considered lost and sometimes she was believed dead. But even if she had been found, say her adversaries, her brain had been manipulated and she could speak only in Marxist phrases. That was until the end of 2012.
After more than 10 years in the jungle, radio messages were sent to Nijmeijer's camp instructing her to leave her hiding place. She was given six days to reach a secret rebel rendezvous, the coordinates of which were included in the message. Together with a group of companions, she hiked along muddy trails through the mountains at night, setting up camp on palm leaves during the day. The Colombian military demilitarized an area of 50 square kilometers to provide the rebel safe passage. A Red Cross helicopter was waiting for her at the rendezvous and she was flown to Bogotá and then to Cuba.
FARC Poster Child
Nijmeijer obeyed the instructions from her commander, as she had learned to do. She arrived in Havana after 10 years without access to cars, the Internet, cell phones or ATMs. There, she learned that she was part of a high-ranking FARC delegation appointed to negotiate a peace treaty with the Colombian government.
Nijmeijer was tasked with supporting the delegation with her English skills. Since then, she has been translating the delegation's statements, updating the website, sending Tweets and posting on the rebel group's Facebook page. There is likely, though, a second reason she was chosen beyond her language abilities: that of serving as a poster child for FARC.
In addition to death and prison, a third option has now been added to Nijmeijer's scenarios for the future: peace in Colombia, bringing an end to the world's longest civil war, which began 50 years ago.
More than 200,000 people have died since then, many at the hands of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, whose original mission was to champion the rights of the poor.
FARC and the government have been at the negotiating table in Cuba, neutral ground for both sides, since November 2012. The negotiations revolve around six issues: land reform, disarming the guerillas, compensating the victims on both sides, putting an end to the drug trade, FARC's future political role and the implementation of the agreement. However, as there is no ceasefire yet, the Colombian military and FARC are still at war.
The Interpol search for Nijmeijer has been suspended for the negotiations in Cuba, creating a small window of time to speak with the wanted terrorist. And there are many questions.
No foreigner has risen as high within the ranks of the FARC leadership as Nijmeijer, officially known as Guerrillera Number 608372. What motivated her to join FARC, an organization accused of smuggling cocaine, setting land mines and staging attacks -- in addition to kidnappings of people from farmers to politicians like Ingrid Betancourt?
'I Would Be Very Frustrated'
There are times when she thinks about the life she could have led, says Nijmeijer: a house in the Netherlands, three children, a bourgeois profession. She is silent for moment as she glances around the hotel lobby, which symbolizes everything she despises: an espresso machine, a bag of peanuts for $4, Red Bull and a bored-looking employee standing in front of an aquarium. "I would be very frustrated today," she says.
Three or four months after joining the rebels, Nijmeijer burned her passport in her company's cooking fire. She no longer felt a need to own a passport. "And that was that," she says. It was the end of her old life.
There were three steps that took Nijmeijer to FARC, and the first of them was a coincidence. It was mid-December 1997 and Nijmeijer was 19. She had just left a university lecture and walked into the cafeteria on the second floor of the Romance Studies Institute in Groningen. She got herself a cup of coffee and opened the student newspaper, where she saw an ad looking for an English teacher in Colombia. She had never been to South America. It sounded exciting, so she applied. "Do you know that there is a war in Colombia?" an official at the embassy asked her. "No," she replied.
She took the second step because she felt guilty.
In Colombia, she taught English in a school for the children of wealthy families in Pereira, in the foothills of the Andes. Whenever she left her tidy apartment community after breakfast, she would see the homeless digging through the trash. She saw starving people not far from shopping malls in Bogotá. She often wept. As she was sitting on the school bus one day, she saw an indigenous family walking barefoot through the dirt. One of the children on the bus pointed at the family and shouted: "You're poor and we're rich!" Nijmeijer was ashamed -- and she had questions.
She turned to a female mathematics professor she had met. "Don't you Colombians feel sad to be living in a city where people in the north have everything while those in the south have nothing?" The professor replied with a question: "Don't you Europeans feel sad to be owning everything while other countries have nothing?" Nijmeijer didn't know how to respond.
'The Wrong Path'
The third step followed a mission.
After her year in Colombia had ended and she was back in the Netherlands, Nijmeijer felt gripped by a strange frenzy. She believed that she had to bring about change. Isn't force sometimes necessary to achieve justice, she wondered? By any means possible, if necessary? She established contact with the International Socialists, and she began selling leftist newspapers on the street and protesting in front of the parliament building in The Hague, where she and a group of activists staged a simulated massacre to protest the construction of a US military base on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, for which she spent 26 hours jail. But as a revolutionary in Europe, her options were limited. It isn't easy to make history in a clean country like the Netherlands. Her mother Hanni, a nurse, was worried about Nijmeijer. "You're on the wrong path," she said. "What do you want to do with your life?"
Nijmeijer told her parents she was fed up with capitalism, which she blamed for sending thousands to their deaths. "Tanja, you just have to look at the Soviet Union to see that communism has failed," her father argued.
"Yes," she replied, "but perhaps it will work in another part of the world."
She completed her degree, just as she had always finished everything she had started. Her parents wanted her to work as a manager in a meat factory. But Nijmeijer, still dreaming of revolution, returned to Colombia, where she met with the professor. I don't want to be a bystander anymore, she said. The professor told her that she was a member of FARC and could take Nijmeijer to the rebels. That was how it happened.
Nijmeijer describes everyday life in the jungle: "Your backpack always has to be packed and ready to go, always. It should contain a mosquito net, tent, uniform, underwear, socks, a blanket, two bottles of gasoline, rice, beans, lentils, spaghetti, sugar, salt and flour. There are normally 20 kilos of food in the backpack, which weighs 30 to 35 kilos."
It is as though Nijmeijer were a train that had suddenly switched to a different track, one that was now rushing toward a foreign destination on unknown rails. An activist who has counseled former FARC members in Colombian prisons for decades says: "Tanja is a rebel without a cause." And influential minister in the Colombian government calls her "a broken human being, a hostage of her ideology." The new man in her life, a soldier with FARC, says: "She is one of us, a camarada." And, finally, her mother says: "She will always be my daughter."
- Part 1: The Foreign Face of FARC's Civil War
- Part 2: Encountering Death
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