Peace May Be On Hold, But Colombia's Rebels Are Eager To Become Civilians

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FARC rebels met at a conference in September to endorse a peace deal with the Colombian government. A subsequent rejection of the deal by voters has left them in limbo.

Ivan Merchan's body could use a break. During his 30 years fighting for the Marxist guerrilla group known as the FARC, Merchan tells me he has been shot 12 times. His arms and legs are a mass of scar tissue.

So it's not surprising that Merchan and about 250 other rebels at a FARC camp in southern Colombia are ready to lay down their weapons. But there's a hitch.

In a binding referendum, Colombian voters rejected a peace accord to end the country's 52-year-old war. Nonetheless, the guerrillas are pushing ahead with plans for their new lives. They want a definitive end to the war.

For that to happen, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leaders must cut a deal with conservative politicians who led the campaign against the peace agreement. They claim it provides the rebels with too many benefits.

In the meantime, the guerrillas seem to be slowly morphing into civilians. In the past, leaving one's weapon unattended merited stiff sanctions, like ditch-digging. But about half the guerrillas stroll unarmed around this camp. The day's main activity is a lecture about politics.

Speaking beneath a plastic tarp during a downpour, Federico Nariño, a mid-level commander, outlines plans for the FARC to form a left-wing political party once the rebels disarm.

"Comrades," he says, "we have to learn to express our political goals to the masses to win their votes."

But if a new peace agreement emerges, the FARC could face rejection at the ballot box and in the job market. Rank-and-file guerrillas have limited education and job skills. Many Colombians despise the rebels for carrying out massacres and kidnappings.

Still, many guerrillas, like 27-year-old Solangy Ramírez, have big dreams. She joined the FARC at age 13, when her peasant farm family could no longer afford to send her to school.

Ramírez says she wants to attend medical school. She has loads of experience already, because as a guerrilla nurse, she has patched up hundreds of bullet and shrapnel wounds.

But FARC rebels are now facing a different set of health issues — brought on by their newly sedentary lifestyle. With no military drills or marches, one rebel tells me he has put on 50 pounds. Some female guerrillas are expecting babies. That used to be prohibited in the FARC. In the past, many pregnant rebels were forced to have abortions.

"Now we can have the kids that we couldn't have during the war," says Milena Reyes, a FARC press attaché. She adds that a bilateral cease-fire has made it safer to travel to FARC camps. That has opened the door to emotional family reunions.

Reyes recently saw her father for the first time since she ran away from home to join the FARC 14 years ago, she says. It was a taste of what a postwar Colombia might be like. For Reyes, it was sweet.

"Peace," she says, "brings you back to life."

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