To reach Tierra Grata, a semi-desert landscape, located near the slopes of the Perijá Mountains, you have to traverse a long stretch from the province’s capital of Valledupar, and if you want to take a shortcut through neighbouring Guajira, you must pass through constant military checkpoints.
The flames of spontaneous fires in fields and forest on both sides of the motorway along with the Caribbean heat are a constant until you reach the municipality of La Paz, on the limit with Cesar, more than ten kilometres from this Tierra Grata.
The camp referred to as “Simón Trinidad” is located here, renamed by the Farc guerrillas in honour of the rebel commander from this region who has been imprisoned in the US for years, and to whom the writer Jorge Enquire Botero dedicated a book titled, “Man of Iron”- a reference to his strong principles.
Tierra Grata is one of the Transitory Local Zones of Normalisation (TLZN), where Farc is scheduled to disarm in accordance with the Havana peace agreements, in order to reintegrate into civilian life as a political organisation.
In this cold and secluded place, we spent two days talking with Commander Solis Almeida (his ‘war name’), leader of the insurgent group displaced in this area, still with modern assault rifles on their backs.
He appears tough, surly, very reserved, the product of an environment full of turmoil, combat, and sacrifice. However, he is a man of solid political formation, friendly, communicative and sometimes even able to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Originally from Puerto Boyacá, and member of the high-ranking Estado Mayor Central of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army, or FARC-EP, he commands two units of the Marin Caballero Bloc, the 19th Front and 41st Front.
“When I was young and new to Farc, I read the book “Reminiscences of the Cuban revolutionary war,” and that was how I learnt about the Comandante Juan Almeida Bosque. I was impressed by his duty and bravery in the Sierra Maestra, and for that reason I took his surname for my war name”, Almeida tells us.
There are now some 150 men and 50 women in this camp, under the command of the insurgent Colombian, who are taking steps to prepare for the disarmament and reintegration into civilian life.
“When they arrived at Tierra Grata on the 1st of February, they thought they would find dorms and the agreed conditions that are necessary to live in a camp. It’s the same as when we were at war, with just makeshift tents and beds made from pallets by the guerrillas”, he states.
Almeida tells us that the most serious problem in the normalisation zone is the summer drought, “that has consumed all vegetation, and the trees have lost their leaves, meaning we are outdoors in the sun practically all day long.”
The biggest inconvenience, however, is the water. “We have a modern water filter system installed, but we lack water to filter; the water hasn’t come and the local firefighters bring very little in pipes”, he explains.
“There is electricity”, he says, “We have two plants. They are needed for the work carried out by the company that is building the camp. They come on at 5 in the morning and they turn off at 20:00.”
He adds that, “with this schedule we run the risk of all our fresh food going to waste, which has happened before. The daily fuel that arrives is not enough to keep the plants on for 24 hours a day.”
With regards to the government failing to keep the promises they had made, he mentions the lack of kitchen and dining area. In this sense, they have to commit a kind of environmental massacre on a daily basis, cutting down firewood to be able to cook and eat.
He also mentions the healthcare that the combatants receive, as there is still no health post or clinic. He explains that the UN observers have had to make several emergency trips to take Farc members with precarious diseases to hospitals in nearby towns.
He adds that they only have the doctor, the nurses and some medicine that they had when they were armed in the mountains of Perijá.
The living conditions were inadequate for their arrival, but Farc made a promise to both the country and the international community that by the 31st of January they would be set up in the temporary camps in the 19 normalisation zones and seven other pre-arranged areas for demobilisation.
He emphasises that they did not receive the mutual respect they were expecting from the other side. “We were giving 24 days to move to this area and of those we have only been able to work four and a half. The guerrillas are willing to work on the construction, but the company in charge of setting up the camp, EJT Solutions, never provides sufficient materials for the different work sites”, he states.
Almeida says that the command of the guerrillas thought long and hard before taking the step towards ‘concentration’, in a helpless situation, in sites surrounded by the Colombian army and police.
“From here we have been in contact with over 1,250 leaders from all over the Atlantic Coast. Presidents of community boards, union leaders, and university students have been through here, and we have even discussed peace education with journalists, which has made it possible for people to understand our revolutionary ideas.
In his conversation with Prensa Latina, the member of the Farc’s high command Estado Mayor Central also mentions the delay on part of the National Executive to apply the amnesty law that was passed recently by Congress. He suggests that it has taken a long time to establish the legislation so that judges can make decisions about releasing the combatants that are still in prison.
Referring to several cases where combatants of the insurgent movement were released, he says that there is an urgent need for the guerrillas to come out of prisons and integrate into normalisation zones such as this one.
Despite these setbacks, Almeida thinks that it is still possible to meet the agreed deadline, so that the congress of the new political party can go forward in May to give way for Farc to become part of the country’s democracy. This has been in the pipeline since an electoral campaign for the presidential elections in 2018.
He emphasises that the guarantee of safety for the insurgent group must be adhered to, and this is one of the concerns “that has been on the minds of many of our members”.
“At this stage, we can confirm that a shift is taking place. Social leaders are being murdered. For example, there have already been three deaths this year here in Cesar, and that worries all of society, not only the guerrillas,” he notes.
There is a long history of paramilitary violence here in Cesar. He says that in this area in particular, was where Jorge 40 (Rodrigo Tovar Pipo) operated, one of the most savage criminals that the paramilitary has seen.
“This criminal built an empire of death close to Valledupar, and in fact, we have information that some people who were part of those illegal activities are now reorganising.
Mainly in the municipality El Copey, in the jurisdiction called Chimila, we know that paramilitaries are regrouping. They have threatened some social leaders and even killed a leader of a Community Action Board in El Copey itself”, he recalls.
“What is most worrying about what we consider a serious situation is that the government hasn’t done anything to stop them.” (PL)
Photos: Pixabay and other freesources – (Translated by Daghorn)