Tanja Nijmeijer: Dutch Farc rebel at peace talks
- 31 January 2013
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
It is now three months since Marxist insurgents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and representatives of the Colombian government sat down in Havana to begin peace talks - the first attempt in a decade to end Colombia's long conflict through dialogue.
The government is pushing to secure an historic end to hostilities by November, whilst Farc leaders are pushing for a deal palatable to militants back in the jungle.
In the midst of it all is a middle-class Dutch woman, who went to Colombia to teach English in the 1990s and ended up a fighter with the Farc.
University educated, attractive and with near flawless Spanish and English, the Farc must hope that including Tanja Nijmeijer in the peace talks will help boost the group's image. Colombia's government tried to veto her involvement.
But the Dutch guerrilla is one of 10 Farc members with a seat at the negotiating table, and offers an insight into the insurgency at a critical moment.
'Politics of violence'
The 34-year-old told the BBC that she knew "nothing about the war or the guerrillas" when she first visited Colombia as a student in 1998.
The insurgency was at its height then, militarily. She learned of the conflict whilst watching local television to improve her Spanish. She began asking questions, and was gradually radicalised by a fellow teacher, who later revealed he was a Farc militant.
The teacher took her to city slums and talked of a fight for "social justice" in a country of deep inequalities.
"I saw the poverty and I was really impressed by that. I started to question the capitalist system, everything around me," she recalls.
Four years later, she returned from the Netherlands "to see how those people were going to change society" but soon felt compelled to get actively involved.
By then, the Farc had been labelled a terrorist group by the US and the EU.
"Working for the Farc meant planting bombs," Ms Nijmeijer said in a 2010 film shot in the Colombian jungle, and added that the militia would "set buses and businesses on fire".
She has since been indicted by a Colombian court for attacks on a police station, Bogota's bus network and several warehouses. A US court is demanding up to 60 years in prison for her role in the kidnap of three US citizens, who were held hostage for five years.
"I am a member of an armed movement," is her only response today when questioned on her direct participation in violence.
She is impatient at questions challenging her motives.
"I didn't choose to use violence, I chose to do politics in a country where doing politics implies violence," Ms Nijmeijer says.
Malcolm Deas, an academic and long-time observer of the Colombian conflict, says: "The argument that you have to take up arms just isn't the case."
"How can you say the Left has no prospects in the country, if three of the last mayors of Bogota came from the Left?" he asks.
Victims or aggressors?
Like all the Farc delegates at the talks in Cuba, Ms Nijmeijer portrays the guerrillas as victims of a murky war, not aggressors.
The Farc's founders emerged from a Communist commune over-run by the military in 1964; Ms Nijmeijer also cites a short truce in the 1980s, when more than 2,000 Farc-backed candidates for elections were singled-out and assassinated.
The Farc come to this latest peace process much weakened militarily.
In 2002, then-President Alvaro Uribe launched a massive military offensive against the insurgents, just as Ms Nijmeijer joined the ranks.
Three of the Farc's top commanders have been killed and Mr Deas says the Farc are now negotiating "for a slice of the political action".
Ms Nijmeijer stresses that political representation is "very important" for the Farc, as well as guarantees that any agreements reached at the peace talks will be fully implemented.
There are glimpses of the former school teacher as she talks: when she laughs at her hesitations in English, or talks of long telephone calls home to her family. She has chosen a very feminine outfit for the interview, far from her usual military fatigues.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Colombia's long conflict and millions displaced. Ms Nijmeijer admits no regrets for her part in it.
"There are victims after more than 48 years of war. That's why we're talking about peace now," she says.
Perhaps it is a hardness born of necessity.
In 2007, her diary was discovered by Colombian soldiers in a raid on a rebel camp, and extracts made public mocked the privileges enjoyed by Farc leaders and questioned her decision to join the insurgency. But the Dutch guerrilla later said she had been misquoted.
Five years on, she talks of life as a militant in nothing but glowing terms, saying she has been "realised as a woman".
"The Farc isn't a debating society. If you want to survive, you toe the line and follow orders," Mr Deas points out.
After so long in the jungle, he suggests that "she's persuaded herself that [the Farc] are 'lovely' and that she was right".
Ms Nijmeijer clearly is not used to being challenged on her views. She bristles at the term "terrorist", saying she agreed to an interview - not a trial.
Her enduring fervour shows just how complex these talks will be. But for all the militants, they are the only possible way out of the jungle now.
"I'd go to Holland but just for a couple of weeks," Ms Nijmeijer says of her plans if peace is ever reached. But then she wants to be back in Colombia, with the Farc.
"We could continue as a political movement," she says of that potential future.
"We could start to fight for our ideas without rifles."