Published in the March 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “It’s Not How They Say It” is from an interview with a girl in a reintegration program for former child soldiers in Colombia. It was conducted by Yvonne E. Keaims and first published by the Quaker United Nations Office. This week, the Colombian government and FARC, the largest of the country’s left-wing rebel groups, announced that they had reached a deal to end their 52-year war. Translated from the Spanish.
My family was very, very strict. I was beaten a lot. My legs were black-and-blue from the beatings. The guerrillas asked me why my legs were like that, and so I told them, and they asked me why I didn’t go with them, because they didn’t beat people, they didn’t treat you badly, they didn’t insult you, nothing. And so I told them that I would think about it, and the next day I went off with them. My mum found out, and she came to look for me and told the guerrillas to give me back because I was underage and how on earth could they even have thought about taking me. I said that I wasn’t going to go back home, and since then I haven’t seen my family. And then, when I was with the guerrillas, I didn’t miss them anymore; I didn’t need them, or anything.
Among the guerrillas, no man has the right to be disrespectful toward a woman, nor do you have the right to insult someone there. If you insult someone you get punished. Nobody hit me, nobody insulted me. I mean, after that the guerrillas were like my family. I settled in. I never got bored or fed up with the guerrillas, but I had a good time, because the commanders helped you a lot, and it’s very different when nobody is telling you off or hitting you all the time, and I really changed a lot. But then later, I don’t know, that changed, and I ran away from there.
Before I was a teenager, I had a husband in the guerrillas. He knew that I was still a girl, he told me not to be afraid, he wasn’t going to abuse me, he wanted me to be his girl. The girls, the women, who had been there the longest, gave me advice—they said that it was better because then I wasn’t going to be bothered by any of the others, and that he would look after me and help me, and so I accepted. I was fitted with an IUD. I had that for about a year and a half, then I got ill and I had it taken out. In spite of being my “husband” he was like a dad, and I told him all about my family. He helped me a lot, he carried my things, sometimes he helped me with the rifle, and so I just carried my clothes. Then he told me that he, well, that he wanted someone else because I was still a little girl, and so he said he was going to get another girlfriend, someone older, a woman. I was transferred and I never saw him again.
In the evening we were given talks in the classroom. The talks were about Plan Colombia—which is what the United States wanted to do with Colombia—about drug trafficking, and about how a guerrilla should behave in public. You shouldn’t treat anyone badly, and you shouldn’t insult anyone. If you get insulted, you shouldn’t insult back. You shouldn’t take things belonging to the civilians. You should respect them, not bother the girls, and show solidarity; for example, if you get to a house and there’s a woman doing dishes or washing clothes, then go and help her, or if a man is chopping wood, then the men should go and help him, to show solidarity. That’s what we did if we saw people working-we set about helping them.
Most of all I liked traveling. I liked getting to know lots of places. Where we were, the guerrillas had never been before, and the people, the poor people, had to sleep with everything inside. Sometimes they even had the cattle in the kitchen, because there were many thieves about, and we arrived and we killed about ten of the thieves, and that finished it. There were no more robberies, and so the people were very grateful. I had to organize some meetings in the villages to explain the value of the women guerrillas, and sometimes you have to argue with the men because they say that women should stay at home, and so you try to get that idea out of their heads.
I was in several battles. I wasn’t afraid. I don’t know, when you’re actually there, the fear just goes, and after the first ten shots, I wasn’t afraid anymore and I carried on like normal. Once when we attacked and then went in to check it over, there were about four dead policemen, all covered in blood. That was the first time that I saw a dead body, and for more than a week afterward, as soon as I closed my eyes, I could see them. That was pretty tough. I never thought that I might get killed. I just said, I hope God helps me and nothing happens to me.
I wasn’t afraid of dying but of being taken alive by the army. One of the girls was taken alive; she was about sixteen years old. They captured her and they all raped her, all the soldiers, more than a hundred, and then at the end when they were tired of that, they stuck their rifle barrels into her vagina and fired and then they poured sulfuric acid on her. They buried her, and then afterward we went there and dug her up, and we gave her military honors, and we bathed her, and then we looked at her, and then we dressed her, and then we took her to be buried in another cemetery. We were very angry, and so we went and fought the army for two days running.
What I most liked doing was helping the poor people, the children and old people, and what I didn’t really like doing was kidnapping people, or taking money from people, or taking the cars that they were driving. The civilians got on better with the women. They were afraid of the men, but with the women it was easier to get things across to them, because a woman can go in and talk to the woman of the house, she can help her tidy the kitchen, and so the civilians trust them more. And so because of that, there were always two or three women in each squadron or group.
Every day there was a “relations session,” when everyone was called together, except for those on guard. You step forward and say that so and so treated me badly or any other problem, and you tell everyone, or suggestions you want to make, so you step forward and say, I’ve got an idea, and the idea is that we have two cooks or to have one less, or my suggestion is that we all stay in bed, etc., and we solved our problems like that. If there are problems between two people, if you’re about to come to blows, then you’re told to talk about it. They explain that you shouldn’t fight among companions: the enemy is outside, not inside; and sometimes they understand, or if not, if they’re very angry, then they put the two that are fighting face-to-face until—it could be all night—until finally they begin to talk, and if they don’t make up like that then they’re made to sleep in the same bed, or made to eat off the same plate, and like that, sleeping together they have to make it up.
The ideology from before is very different from the ideology now. I mean, when I was with them, the guerrillas said that we were fighting for the people, for a socialist country, and now it’s totally different. People are killed just for the sake of it. The guerrillas used to be, I don’t know how, they had more goodwill, they used to help the needy people more, and now they don’t, now it’s like, “I don’t give a damn if people suffer.” For the moment, I’d like to stay here until I’m eighteen and then see if the reinsertion program helps me to set up a project. Sometimes I feel okay, as some people don’t know that you’ve been in that. You know, they have a really low opinion of the guerrillas, and for me, this is hard, because I was there, and it wasn’t how they think. Sometimes I feel like talking to them and telling them the truth about how it really was.
My biggest dream is to have a big house with a really big living room and to invite all the children and old people that you see out on the street, the ones that they call “disposable people,” and take them all to this big room with loads of beds, and help them all. I mean, to make it a home for them. That’s what I’d like to do. But who knows?
Perhaps I’d tell the girls who are with the guerrillas to get out of there, to think carefully and make a good decision, one that they know will help them, and that they should get out and give themselves up because it’s not how they say it is. It’s not a place for girls to be, or for those underage, or even men and women. Children should have some kind of freedom, be free and do what they want to do—for example, to study, to progress, and not be there with the guerrillas.