Colombian rebels exchange rifles for rattles amid baby boom

AP News
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Posted: Mar 08, 2017 11:18 AM
Colombian rebels exchange rifles for rattles amid baby boom

LA CARMELITA, Colombia (AP) — Amid the makeshift tents and communal kitchens where Colombia's largest rebel army is preparing to lay down its weapons, a new sound is emerging: the cries of babies.

Playpens and strollers rest on the bare dirt ground next to assault rifles. Young mothers change diapers while their guerrilla comrades carry wood planks across fields of mud. Fathers still dressed in fatigues shake rattles and lift their giggling infants playfully into the air.

For decades, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kept such strict control over its fighters' reproductive rights that female guerrillas who became pregnant were forced to leave newborns with relatives or even abort. The practice flew in the face of the rebels' claim that by enrolling female warriors they were freeing women from traditional gender roles that restricted their choices, and it angered many in this devoutly Roman Catholic country.

But in the last year, as the FARC and government reached an agreement to end Latin America's longest-running armed conflict, those stringent battlefield rules have loosened. The result is a veritable baby boom, which has struck a chord even among urban Colombians far removed from the conflict, a few of whom have mobilized to transport diapers and creams to the new mothers after seeing images of sweltering infants on cots in the rural encampments.

"It wasn't seen as viable for us to have children, because why is someone going to have them when there are bullets flying around?" said Jerly Suarez, 29. She gave birth shortly before the FARC began its march to one of the 26 demobilization zones.

Among the 7,000 guerrillas gathered at the demobilization zones across the country, 114 women are pregnant and 77 babies have been born recently, according to the government. Dozens of other older children who had been left with relatives during the conflict have also arrived. That has injected a sense of optimism into camps where war-hardened rebels are beginning their transition to civilian life.

Many are referring to the babies as the "children of peace."

"I think in some ways these children symbolize the hope of a country that needs peace and reconciliation," said Carlos Antonio Lozada, a member of the FARC's ruling secretariat who is awaiting a child of his own with a fellow combatant.

During times of war, FARC guerrillas trekked for miles through jungle terrain, often carrying heavy loads. Constant confrontation with government soldiers and endless guard duties in jungle camps made raising children during the conflict difficult, if not impossible. Women were given steady supplies of contraceptives, and those who did get pregnant were presented with two options: leave the baby with the family members or end the pregnancy.

The exact number of forced abortions is unknown, though it is likely in the hundreds. Colombia's chief prosecutor said in 2015 his office had documented more than 150 forced abortions, which he identified as "a policy of the FARC."

Within the rebel ranks, maternity was always a hot topic of discussion.

"Everyone wanted to have their children," said Tobias Diaz, a guerrilla-trained medic with the FARC's southern bloc.

Conditions in the demobilization zones are nonetheless challenging: Even in La Carmelita, one of the more built-up camps, rebels sleep under plastic tarps. There are no proper showers or clinics and a road to the main highway is so muddy it is hard to traverse except in all-terrain vehicles.

In Bogota, Diana Rodriguez and a group of wealthy young women moved by the tales of guerrilla moms struggling to provide for their children got together to send backpacks filled with basic products for newborns like soap, diapers and moisturizing creams.

"If being a new mom is difficult for me, imagine what it's like for these women," said Rodriguez, who gave birth to her daughter three months ago. "If we want to build peace, we have to all contribute in one way or another."

Some of the guerrilla mothers are giving birth in camps, but most at nearby hospitals.

In La Carmelita, where 500 guerrillas are expected to hand over their weapons by June 1, women speak of both the arduous conditions in which they have begun their new lives as mothers and their hopes for raising children in a time of peace.

Suarez recalled how her young son, Dainer, hot and hungry, cried throughout the long march to the demobilization zone. Rebel mothers carried their weapon on one shoulder, their baby on the other.

Marlin Velazquez remembers following the peace dialogues for four years as a sort of countdown to motherhood.

"Being a guerrilla and having the desire to have a child, you say, 'When will the conflict end, so that I can create my home, have my children?" said Velazquez, 20, who gave birth in February. "What do you want and what are your plans for the future?"