YARI PLAINS, Colombia (AP) — The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kicked off its last conference as a rebel army Saturday as it looks to transition into a political movement following the signing of a peace accord to end more than a half-century of hostilities.
The FARC's top leader, Rodrigo Londono, addressed about 500 mostly unarmed and semi-uniformed guerrillas who had arrived from all parts of Colombia to attend the meeting in which top commanders will ratify a peace accord reached with the government last month and debate political strategy going forward.
Speaking from a giant concert stage dropped in the middle of southern Colombia's desolate plains, the bearded leader known by his alias Timochenko told the guerrillas, many of whom stood in formation with their hands behind their backs, that in pursuing peace there are neither victors nor vanquished.
"If our adversaries want to tout they won the war, that's up to them," Timochenko said in his inaugural address, surrounded by all seven members of the FARC's secretariat, its top decision-making body. "For the FARC, our greatest satisfaction will always be that peace has won."
Timochenko and President Juan Manuel Santos will sign the accord Sept. 26 in the city of Cartagena. A week later Colombians will be asked to ratify or reject the deal in a referendum. Polls show it is expected to overwhelmingly pass.
This the FARC's 10th conference as a rebel army and the first not held in secret. Instead of discussing battlefield strategy, the FARC must settle on a new name for their political movement and deliberate on who it wants to represent it in 10 specially reserved seats in congress created for the group in exchange for laying down its weapons.
For days this makeshift camp has been buzzing with activity as rebels hastily constructed structures to house their comrades arriving on the backs of pickup trucks, with pet dogs and parrots in tow, by way of a long, treacherous dirt road. Hundreds of journalists have also been invited to record the encounter, although access to the deliberations themselves is restricted.
For many rebels who've spent their lives in the jungle, the meeting is also an opportunity to be reunited with comrades and family members, some of whom they hadn't seen for years.
"This is a historic moment because the history of Colombia has always been one of war," said a 29-year-old rebel who goes by her nom de guerre Gina as she launched her baby into the air. "This moment is what every Colombian is waiting for."
Alias Mauricio Jaramillo, a commander of the FARC's eastern bloc, said he was optimistic about the road ahead.
"I think we're going to have some great news for the country," said Jaramillo, a member of the secretariat. "An opportunity for real peace is opening up for Colombia."