Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgencies and turns 50 on May 27.
This first-person account is part of a series of articles looking at the FARC’s half-century war against the Colombian state and views on the ongoing peace process between the rebels and government in Cuba.
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sabas Duque voluntarily joined Colombia’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), when he was a child, and rose through the ranks to become an arms dealer for the guerrilla insurgency.
Nearly 17,000 FARC fighters have laid down their weapons over the past decade, according to government figures, and Duque, 45, is one of them. In an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation, he recalls why he joined the FARC and describes the long road towards reconciliation, which he believes is a prerequisite for peace in Colombia.
“When I was 15, I had my own gun.
“I grew up in a rural area of the Cesar province where there was no state presence. The first authority to arrive at the village where I lived was the FARC. They told us: ‘We are the rule of law and justice here.’
“My family grew cash crops and raised cattle. I had a loving mother and an authoritarian father. Despite coming from a big family - I have 11 siblings - my parents made sure there was always enough food.
“I first came into direct contact with the guerrillas when I was 14. Then the local FARC commander convened a community meeting where he talked about Marxism and the fight against the oligarchy.
“Every now and then, the guerrillas would stay at our farm for a couple of days to get food and sleep. They would also let me play with their guns. It was normal being around them.
“For me, and most other teenagers in the area, it was almost inevitable that we would end up joining the guerrillas.
“When I was 15, the local FARC commander, known as El Loco - the Mad Man - got together the boys and some girls living in the community. He told us we would all get guns if we became part of a network of informants for the FARC.
“We were all motivated and excited to be part of such an adventure and political project. Besides, there was nothing else to do where I lived.
“Our task was to maintain security in the area and keep the FARC’s military front and commander safe by informing him if the state army was approaching.
“When the commander handed me my gun he said: ‘This is your mother. Treat the gun like you would your mother.’ It made me feel strong.
“Some used the power the guns gave them to seek revenge. Innocent people were killed. We were young and we didn’t know what we were doing. People died because of the information we gave to the commander.
“I was eventually approached by another commander, who knew one of my brothers who had also joined the FARC, and he asked me if I could help them get weapons.
“Back then, I liked the FARC’s ideology. Moreover, supplying the FARC with weapons meant I earned good money and I felt I was helping a cause.
“Looking back, those weapons that I bought in cash with money the FARC gave me led to deaths.
“One day in 2001, I got busted. Police caught me transporting weapons in a car along a main road in northern Colombia. Before I went to jail, the police tortured me. They wanted information about the arms smuggling routes.
“It was during my time in prison that I realised that the FARC wasn’t a genuine movement that defended and fought for the poor. When I saw them blowing up bridges, I thought how does that help the poor in a rural community? I also realised that the FARC weren’t going to take power as they aimed to do.
“When I left jail several years later at the age of 33, two paramilitary gunmen tried to kill me. Having worked as a FARC arms dealer, I was a target for the paramilitaries. They shot me four times in the chest and left me for dead. That’s how I ended up in wheelchair.
“Three months later, while I was still in the hospital, a doctor told me I would never walk again and regain feeling from my waist down. Hearing that hurt more than being shot. I felt a great deal of resentment, fear and loneliness.
“My life changed in 2007 though, after joining the Foundation for Reconciliation in Bogota, founded by a Catholic priest.
“Here we’re encouraged to think about our responsibilities and what forgiveness and reconciliation means. I’ve come to understand that forgiveness starts with healing your own wounds and pain.
“I’ve been both the victimizer and the victim. I’ve been a victim of the paramilitaries and state security forces. I’ve also been discriminated against for being a paraplegic in a wheelchair. It has taken me about 10 years to fully reintegrate back into society.
“I decided to put my grain in the sand to do my bit to promote forgiveness among communities through my work with the foundation. When fighters demobilise or get out of jail, they often return home. We invite demobilised fighters and the local community to participate in workshops with the aim of breaking the stigma, discrimination and fear people have living side by side with ex-fighters.
“We start by asking: ‘What do you think about demobilised fighters, have you ever met any?’
“People often ask me why I’m in a wheelchair and that’s how I start talking about my past. During the workshops, there’s the moment when the ice is broken and people realise who is who. It can take up to seven workshops before the past identity of each person is revealed.
“I tell people that if I can forgive the people who shot me and put me in a wheelchair, then you too can forgive. Not forgiving only fills you with hate. Through this process, I’ve found inner peace.
“I don’t think society is prepared or willing to receive ex-fighters back into their communities. But we all have to try and doing something.
“I hope a peace accord is reached between the FARC and the government. But the path to peace is not a signed deal. It’s about forgiveness and reconciliation within communities. Without that, there can’t be peace in Colombia.”