Demobilisation in Llano Grande

Gwen Burnyeat

On 15 August, the last of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s munitions and weapons were removed by a UN mission from 26 temporary demobilisation camps, where 7000 guerrilleros have been living for seven months. This ends the first phase of the implementation of the Havana Accords, signed on 24 November 2016. The next stage is the reintegration of the Farc’s members into the social, economic and political life of the country. On 1 September the organisation will launch a new political party. Other medium and long-term measures include land reform, mine clearance and the replacement of coca with legal crops.

In Llano Grande, a hamlet in the municipality of Dabeiba, in Western Antioquia province, a remote, mountainous area which has long been a conflict zone, a peasant community of 120 people agreed to host one of the demobilisation camps. Before January, the village didn’t even have a police station. Now it is flanked by a camp of 220 Farc members on one side and white UN tents on the other, and encircled by a battalion of Colombian army soldiers, specially trained to protect their former enemies. Building the camp was logistically ambitious; the deadlines for completion were repeatedly pushed back. For months, government engineers lived alongside the villagers and worked with guerrilleros to put up prefabricated houses. Many of them had never met anyone in the Farc before and left with their prejudices challenged. ‘They work hard, and they want to learn – they’re human beings, just like us,’ one told me.

Only a year ago, it would have been unthinkable for all these people, who for fifty years were trying to kill each other, to coexist in four square kilometres. Slowly, each in their own section – ‘together but not intermingled’, as a soldier put it – they got used to working on shared tasks. Football tournaments are now held between the villagers, the Farc and the police unit stationed in the village.

Since 15 August, ex-Farc members have been categorised as civilians. They have been issued with national ID cards and bank accounts, and started on various training programmes. They can either stay in the temporary housing and go down the collective reintegration route negotiated in Havana, or leave and try to make a life for themselves elsewhere. If they stick with the programme, they will remain close to the leaders of the new political party and can participate in collective economic projects. But they will also be marked out as ex-Farc, which could be dangerous, especially in areas where right-wing neo-paramilitary groups operate, having moved into the vacuum left by the Farc. Seventeen Farc members or their relatives have been assassinated since November.

Some Farc members in Llano Grande had made up their minds what to do, but one guerrillera I spoke to was in agony about the decision. She had brought her teenage children to live with her in the camp. They were going to school in the village, where the number of pupils had increased from 19 to 40. ‘I don’t know which is more of a risk for me and my kids,' she said, 'staying or leaving.'

For the first time since joining the Farc, the guerrilleros are taking their own decisions, instead of following orders from their commanders. Many are concerned the government may not keep its side of the agreement, especially now they have given up their weapons. Some may be tempted to join other armed groups, such as the National Liberation Army – currently in peace talks – or even neo-paramilitary organisations. But most of them are committed to peace-building, and plan to work locally in the political party. In some areas, where they have maintained de facto sovereignty for decades, building roads and administering justice, they may get a fair degree of support, though they will need early success in local elections to ensure continuity. Many of the 26 camps may become permanent. One commander in Llano Grande even has an ambitious plan for an eco-tourism project, to invite foreigners to ‘meet the Farc’ and go hiking in the Abibe mountains with ex-guerrilla guides.

Meanwhile, President Juan Manuel Santos is trying to push the 310-page Havana Accord through the legislative process in Congress before his mandate ends in May 2018. The right-wing Democratic Centre Party is led by ex-President Álvaro Uribe, a staunch opponent of Santos’s peace policy since negotiations with the Farc began in 2012. If the PCD candidate wins the presidency, no one knows what will happen to the peace process.

All the residents of Llano Grande lost family members in the fifty-year conflict. But they accepted the proposal to host the camp because, as one leader said, ‘We want to be an example to the country and show it is possible to make peace.’ More than anyone, these rural communities know the price of returning to war.