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Saturday, 13 January, 2001, 16:09 GMT
Welcome to Farclandia

Peace talks have continued for two years
By Jeremy McDermott

There is something a little surreal about watching a pretty girl dressed in jungle fatigues, carrying grenades and resting an AK-47 on her knees, painting her fingernails. But the 80,000 people that live in this massive guerrilla safe haven have got used to it.

The residents have grown used to the presence of heavily armed guerrillas all around them

This 42,000sq km zone was cleared of police, army and almost any signs of the state at the end of 1998, the FARC precondition for coming to the negotiating table.

Whilst no progress has been made in peace talks, the region has become known as Farclandia and the residents have grown used to the presence of heavily armed guerrillas all around them.

In the towns they are everywhere. Here in San Vicente, the largest town in the zone and the capital of Farclandia, they patrol in twos, ambling down the town streets, usually a guerrilla boy and a guerrilla girl. Most of them look under 18.

Going into the hairdressers, the supermarket, or the pharmacy, you will see them. Come to think of it, San Vicente has a ridiculous number of pharmacies. I guess this is where the 17,000-strong rebel army gets much of its medical supplies.

But the guerrillas do not live in the town, except a few of the political officers or commissars, whose job it is to spy on the local population and keep tabs on visiting journalists and NGOs.

In conversation

Juan Pablo is one of these commissars. He wanders around in the tropical heat with a Che Guevara t-shirt, sometimes sporting a 9mm pistol in a shoulder holster, sometimes not.

He has the uncanny ability of appearing in one of the little restaurants that dot the town as soon as a group of journalists sit down for supper.

He usually comes up to the table, gives a friendly greeting, then sits down to join us. He will talk about world affairs, Marxism, the Third Way and a frightening array of other topics. But he is sounding you out all the time, picking your brains, trying to determine your sympathies.

He then tries to pay the bill, but bearing in mind the FARC finances come from kidnapping - now averaging one every three hours - and the drugs trade, I politely decline.

Only the prospect of action is likely to generate more enthusiasm in a FARC camp than the announcement of bingo

The rest of the guerrillas live in camps in the jungles around San Vicente. Joaquin Gomez, the commander of the FARC's feared Southern Bloc and one of its negotiators with the government, took me out for a chat in one of these camps.

You have to research a few Russian phrases before you see him, as he spent 14 years studying in the Soviet Union, and any words in feeble Russian earn you a slap on the back and a glass of vodka, as well as a much more friendly FARC commander.

Joaquin is highly educated and very articulate. He shows me around the camp, surrounded by trenches with little bivouacs shielding neatly piled rucksacks, showing the rebels are ready to move out at a second's notice.

The guerrillas do not get a salary, but they are able to get some of life's basic luxuries, cosmetics for the girls, penknives for the boys, by playing bingo.

Only the prospect of action is likely to generate more enthusiasm in a FARC camp than the announcement of bingo.

The guerrillas gather with their cards and one of the commanders does the honours. There are whoops of joy as the prizes are handed out, and frantic trading afterwards so that everyone gets something they want.

Slow pace of peace

This childish enthusiasm is exactly that, as at least a third of the guerrillas are under 18.

It is difficult to look into their shining brown eyes as they enjoy the simple pleasures of life and then think that they will soon be launching home-made bombs at police stations and trying to kill everyone inside.

But then why should anyone be surprised? Colombia has been fighting a civil conflict for 37 years, and at the current pace of peace talks, there could be another 37 years ahead.

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See also:

08 Jan 01 | Americas
FARC to free prisoners; report
06 Jan 01 | Americas
Twelve killed in Colombia massacre
28 Dec 00 | Americas
Violence ravages Colombian landscape
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