For FARC moms, peace in Colombia marks new beginning

Florence PANOUSSIAN
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At camps where FARC are disarming under a peace deal guerrillas in combats play with children as a baby boom hit FARC after peace talks with Colombian government opened in 2012

Josleidy Ramirez, a FARC guerrilla, never had a chance to raise the son she gave birth to 15 years ago in the middle of Colombia's civil war.

Now, with peace on the horizon, she is four months pregnant and looking forward to the chance to finally be a mom.

A baby boom has swept the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as the leftist rebel group has embarked on a historic peace process with the government.

Dozens of babies have been born to guerrilla parents since peace talks opened in 2012.

At the camps where the rebels are currently disarming under a peace deal signed in November, guerrillas in combat fatigues can be seen bouncing young children on their laps.

Others, like Ramirez, are expecting to give birth in the camps.

At 32, Ramirez has spent more than half her life fighting the conflict that has torn Colombia for more than half a century and killed 260,000 people.

She sees the peace deal as a new beginning -- though she is also apprehensive.

"I'm worried about (my baby's) future. Sometimes I wonder if the Colombian government will really keep its promises," she told AFP at a camp near San Jose de Oriente, in the northeast, where 200 guerrillas are preparing to transition to civilian life.

Ramirez joined the FARC at 15 years old -- the same age her son is now.

The boy's father, a fellow rebel, was killed in combat. Today, Ramirez refuses to give her son's name, for fear he could be targeted for revenge attacks.

"He's with a relative in the city. He's doing well... I'll reunite with him once I'm sure that this peace process has actually worked," she said.

Last year, just before Colombia's Congress ratified the peace deal, Ramirez got pregnant again with her current partner, also a FARC rebel.

"I wasn't exactly planning it. I had been thinking of going back to school. But anyway, now I'll just have to do both things at once: study and be a mom too," said Ramirez, whose gossamer skin and flowing hair belie her vocation as a leftist guerrilla.

- Abortion polemic -

The FARC requires its female members -- about 40 percent of its 7,000 fighters -- to use birth control.

Ramirez says she always complied.

The thought of getting pregnant, she said, "was scary because our children were military targets. Or the army would use them to collect intelligence and strike us."

Nevertheless, she got pregnant at age 17.

With her commanders' permission, she went into hiding in a small village along with her mother, stayed with the baby for about three months, then returned to combat.

"I wasn't going to betray my organization," she said.

No one ever asked her to have an abortion, she said.

Some rebels say otherwise, though.

Colombian authorities say a doctor named Hector Albeidis Arboleda Buitrago performed hundreds of forced abortions on rebel fighters.

He was arrested in Spain in 2015 and extradited to Colombia earlier this month.

Ramirez calls the allegations "far-right propaganda."

- A mother's pain -

Fellow FARC mom Gladys Narbais agreed.

"I had a baby during the war, in a camp in the Sierra de Santa Marta mountains," she said.

"They let me have my son no problem," she said. "I had him with me for a year and eight months... Afterward, I gave him to a family to raise because I couldn't carry him anymore."

Narbais, 44, has only seen him twice since: once when he was 10, and again when he was 15.

"It pained me as a mother not to see him. But I knew he'd be better off," she said, her eyes shining with pride at the thought of her son, Fernando, now 24 years old and an IT student.

- 'Born again' -

Nearby, Margot Silva cuddles her four-year-old son, Andres David, on her lap.

He was born on October 15, 2012 -- just before the peace talks opened.

"The hope (for peace) was already there," said Silva, 30.

She and her partner, Mario Rodriguez, 33, say they are optimistic for the future.

"Having a baby here is like being born again," said Rodriguez, who joined the FARC at just nine years old, after a right-wing paramilitary unit killed his grandfather.

Ramirez, the expectant mother, is more cautious about what comes next. But she can't help imagining a new life.

"I'll take my baby, go to my son and we'll be able to make a home," she said.