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In remote Colombia, a guerrilla festival to signal war's end

Dilson Cuellares, a guerrilla platoon commander, stood stiffly at attention Saturday with his FARC rebel comrades while their battle anthem blasted from a soundstage big enough for a rock concert. It was the first day in 18 years that Cuellares was not carrying a gun.

"Feels a little lonely," he said, fidgeting with his hands. "Like I don't have my wife."

Having spent virtually his entire adult life carrying an AK-47 in the steamy jungles of southern Colombia, Cuellares, 41, does not have a wife nor a family, but that is something he would very much like some day. "And to study," he said. "Maybe I could be a veterinarian."

He and hundreds of other guerrilla fighters have gathered here on the remote, isolated savannas of eastern Colombia for a six-day guerrilla "conference" meant to mark the rebels' transformation from armed insurgency to legal political party.

After 52 years of trying to topple the state, and four years of painstaking negotiations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — better known as the FARC — has reached a peace accord with the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. If the agreement is approved by Colombian voters in an Oct. 2 referendum, Cuellares and roughly 7,000 other guerrillas will move into camps monitored by the United Nations. They will turn in their weapons permanently and begin an uncertain transition to civilian life.

The stated purpose of the conference here is to bring together 200 guerrilla "delegates" to discuss, debate and vote on the accords. But with Santos and FARC supreme commander "Timochenko" (whose real name is Rodrigo Londoño) set to formally sign the peace agreement on Sept. 26, the approval of the delegates is all but a formality.

Instead, the event has the feel of a FARC blowout party, like an armed more Marxist version of Burning Man, where an elaborate makeshift city has gone up to accommodate the guerrillas, their families and supporters, along with the smaller army of journalists stumbling through their camps in rubber boots.

The nearest town is five hours away along a bone-jarring, battered road. But FARC crews have installed huge tents, portable bathrooms, a gas station and restaurants serving beer, whiskey and ice cream. There's a Caterpillar grader to smooth out the roads, a concert stage with three big-screen televisions and well-appointed, comfortable housing for all of the FARC's top commanders.

Addressing Cuellares and several hundred other guerrillas standing in a huge meadow Saturday morning, Timochenko described the peace deal as a hard-fought victory for the rebels, the result of a decades-long battle to compete in Colombian politics as leftist revolutionaries, without fear of persecution.

"In this war, there are no winners and losers," the stocky, bearded FARC commander said. "The moment has arrived that our adversaries have recognized our full right to participate in politics, with full guarantees."

"For us, it's clear that we have earned it," he said, adding that the FARC would now try to win over the many Colombians with negative views of an insurgent movement that has long financed itself through drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.

"We want all those who still have doubts to approach us and understand the desire we have to dedicate all of our energy to building the new country that the majority of Colombians dream of," Timochenko said.

No Colombian soldiers or other representatives of the government are present in the camp, and while most of the guerrillas who mingle with journalists are unarmed, there are heavily armed FARC units in the surrounding jungles to enforce a security perimeter.

The conference proceedings and internal debates are closed to media, but the rebels have invited reporters to sleep in the guerrilla camps. There, younger soldiers seemed disoriented by questions about their postwar plans and ambitions, even as they insist they will continue to take orders from the superiors in FARC — or its yet-unnamed political party — even if they'll no longer be obligated to.

"I'll do whatever the organization wants," said Eider Narvaez, 23, who said he has been fighting in the jungle since age 13. "Before, our tactics were military ones," he said. "Now they will be political."

The war was much more intense when Narvaez was a teenage fighter, clashing frequently with Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary enemies. "You become an adult fast," he said.

Narvaez and other younger fighters were spending their days now building camps, playing soccer and cooking hearty meals around a campfire oven.

He spoke glowingly of rebel life in the way that almost every soldier does: the sense of belonging, the discipline, the camaraderie. "Being in [the FARC] is just like going to school," he said.

Asked what books he enjoyed reading, Narvaez mentioned Marx and Engels, but said he couldn't remember any of the titles.

[Source: By Nick Miroff, The Washington Post, El Diamante, Col, 17Sep16]

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