COLOMBIA

As end to conflict approaches, FARC opens its conference to the world

More than 900 journalists will be present at guerilla group’s week-long congress to ratify peace deal

A group of rebel soldiers arrives at El Diamante to attend the last FARC conference.
A group of rebel soldiers arrives at El Diamante to attend the last FARC conference.Ricardo Mazalan / AP
San Vicente del Caguán (Colombia) - 19 sep 2016 - 14:14 UTC

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The highway that joins Florencia with San Vicente del Caguán was a war zone until July 20, 2015, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) declared a self-imposed unilateral ceasefire. Every few kilometers, Rufino, a taxi driver who works in the Caquetá region, in southeast Colombia, remembers another incident from those war-torn days. “The guerrillas blew up this bridge to hurt the state and while they were at it, they charged [people] for river crossings. It was here that they killed the Turbays [a family of liberal politicians]. They blew up a truck-bomb around that bend.” Over the last few days, 900 journalists have traveled this road en route to the last FARC conference. Rebel leaders will be meeting with soldiers to ratify the peace deal negotiated with the Colombian government in Havana and renounce violence, so that they may begin their transition to becoming a political party.

“We have to make sure peace becomes a reality in our country based on social justice and democracy,” said FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri – also known as Timochenko – at the opening ceremony of the conference. “This means connecting the large nonconformist majorities with the active political life of our nation,” added Timochenko, who was unarmed and dressed in civilian clothes.

We have to make sure peace becomes a reality in our country based on social justice and democracy

The conference, which runs until September 23, is being held in Llanos del Yarí, a six-hour drive from San Vicente on unpaved roads. In preparation for the meeting, and with the permission of the Colombian government, FARC members set up campsites, makeshift kitchens, offices and tents to host rebel soldiers and visitors. For the first time in 50 years of conflict and after nine conferences, the insurgent group is opening up its congress to the world.

Timochenko and all other members of the FARC Secretariat, the military command of the guerrilla, flew from Cuba to Colombia accompanied by Red Cross International and without any fear of arrest after the Colombian government threw out warrants for their capture. The rest of the group’s high- and mid-level commanders faced no challenges at military checkpoints dispersed throughout this mountainous region. FARC members could not travel this freely when they held their first conference in 1965.

Public talks will focus on women and the environment, and the conference will end with a concert

Long gone are the meetings that transformed the Southern Bloc into the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. There is no scheduled talk on military strategy or location of fronts at this year’s gathering. Timochenko said the group must send “a new, fresh, and hopeful message for changes,” and urged rebels to seek unity, “without which all effort dissipates and is lost.” Insurgents want to remember their struggle by praising their leaders, the fallen and those whom – like Simón Trinidad, who is currently imprisoned in the United States – they consider martyrs of the movement.

Public talks will focus on women and the environment, and the conference will end with a concert. In a historic declaration of peace, rebels will pledge to put down their arms. And there will be no commemoration for the sixth and seventh conferences, during which the group decided to use kidnappings to finance the movement. Or for many other decisions that sowed pain throughout Colombia.

“Talk to the people in Caquetá,” Rufino says. “They’ll tell you that they will vote ‘no’ in the referendum.” Colombians will vote in favor or against the peace deal negotiated with rebels in a national referendum on October 2 – the last hurdle to bringing an end to Latin America’s longest armed conflict. “And ask them what they think of those who kidnapped their parents and siblings having seats [in Congress],” he adds. “There is a lot of pain here. If they told us Uribe could be president tomorrow, we would vote for him – even though we know that would mean war. More lead.”

English version by Dyane Jean François.

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