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23/08/2011 15:37 BST | Updated 20/10/2011 06:12 BST

Advancing Under Fire: Life Inside FARC

"When I saw that red bundle, all covered in blood, well, I realised in that moment that everything had changed." Carol, a former FARC guerrilla, recalls the day her baby daughter was born amidst mortar explosions and machine-gun fire as her unit did battle with Colombia's National Army. "One morning, about 3am, I was woken up by people shouting: 'get up, get up - the Army's coming, they're right on top of us'. I grabbed my gear and headed out to fight, but by the time we were approaching the line I couldn't take anymore... I told the girl I was marching with I couldn't go on. I crouched down and the baby came out straight away and fell to the ground".

The young combatant, who was 17 at the time, lost consciousness during the delivery. Upon coming to she realised she would have to make the 10-kilometer trek back to her basecamp with her newborn child in her arms. "The umbilical cord was still attached and the placenta had not come out," she remembers. "I had to cut the cord myself with a pair of scissors - I wrapped the baby in a towel but then I fell and passed out again."

When she woke up again she was back at the encampment, which had been overrun by the Army. Ironically, her daughter's traumatic arrival into the world may have saved her mother from harsher treatment at the hands of the advancing enemy soldiers. "I woke up and I couldn't remember anything," she continues. "They asked me 'are you crazy, going into combat when you're about to give birth?' I responded: 'what the hell are you talking about? I don't have any kids'. Then the captain showed me the baby and I calmed down."

Becoming a mother also marked the end of her time in the insurgency, as Carol, having become a prisoner of war, volunteered to take part in Colombia's Demobilisation, Reintegration and Reinsertion Programme. The young parent, who had concealed her pregnancy from her superiors, says she thanks God the little girl is strong and healthy despite being born three months premature. And even though the story of how she left Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia is atypically dramatic, Carol is just one of the thousands of combatants who have turned their back on Latin America's oldest and largest insurgency over the past decade.

During the years of hardline President Álvaro Uribe's tenure, from 2002 to 2010, FARC suffered a series of blows. The insurgency's numbers dropped from around 18,000 in 2001 to half that number today, but this was achieved by granting impunity to the right-wing paramilitaries who now control 75% of the country's cocaine production and are responsible for the majority of its human rights abuses. The "parapolitica" scandal, which has seen more than 80 members of Colombia's 268-seat Congress face investigation over alleged links to these militias, suggests they also control a significant part of its political machinery.

Current leader Juan Manuel Santos, who spearheaded the military strategy as Defence Minister in his predecessor's Cabinet, affirms he will address the corruption and inequality that lie at the root of the conflict. But despite the administration's repeated insistence that Colombia is entering a post-conflict phase, and the President's indications that he is open to negotiations with the insurgency, FARC still controls over 20% of the national territory and is nowhere near to being defeated. Over the course of its history, the organisation has repeatedly demonstrated its capacity to adapt to changed circumstances. Greater reliance on snipers and anti-personnel mines, along with the training and deployment of small commando units, have largely halted the government's advance, while the cocaine processing facilities which fund much of its operations have been moved to high-altitude areas where cloud-cover, forest and topography make surveillance and attack all but impossible. The recruitment of child soldiers, often by force, has meanwhile become commonplace as FARC seeks to replenish its depleted ranks.

"I remember there was a strong guerilla presence in my village when I was a child," says Yina, a beautiful 17-year-old who spent four years fighting with FARC. "When I was about 12 they started to stop in front of my house. I noticed how they looked at me. They told me there was a course I could go on and, one night at around 10pm, they arrived at the house and took me. After I arrived at the encampment I did nothing for four days. So then I went to see the commander to ask him about the course. 'Who told you there was a course?' he asked me. 'The guy who brought me here', I explained. There was no course. I wanted to go home but they said we were too far from my village. At first it was OK. I made a lot of friends and we all got on well together. Training lasted for a year: weapons, explosives, tactics. You had to take good care of your gear, really take care of it, clean and maintain it. . . I never got to see my family. Later on I found out that my mother had come looking for me on several occasions, but the commander had told her that I wasn't there, that I was fighting on another front."

Carol's experience was rather different. The daughter of a senior FARC commander, she had actively sought to join the organisation, but was met with resistance from officers who thought she was too young. "We didn't see my dad much because he was always away in combat. When I was 11 I went to vounteer because I coudn't stand my stepfather. They didn't want to accept me as I was so young - they said my body wasn't strong enough yet for combat, but I persisted and eventually they agreed to let me go with them and attend one of their schools. So there I learned the statutes of the organisation, Marxism-Leninism, the rights and rules of engagement. The policy was that noone under 15 could join up, so they called me the mascot. Most of the recruits were between 15 and 20.

"The training was really tough. We had to run and run, with all that stuff on your back. We woke at 4am and we would run between one and two hours. We'd get a break around 10am, for coffee, and then we'd continue running and marching until about 3pm. We'd usually get back to camp around 6pm. By that time we stank, we were filthy - moving through the jungle, all that time, from 4am to 6pm - by the end of it you're filthy. They would also break up your sleep, so you get accustomed to sleeping a few minutes, waking and getting moving quickly. You have to be able to pack all your gear - sheets, entrenching tool, plates and stuff - all in the space of a minute or so, in case you come under attack."

There is a toughness and a confidence to Carol's demeanour, but she confesses to having been frightened when the time came to put her training into practice. "I was 14", she reveals. "They said all those who want to can go, all those who don't can stay behind - I went, but I was very afraid." A laugh escapes from her mouth as she recalls how things unfolded that day. "I almost killed everybody around me," she says, shaking her head. "The commanders always matched up the new people with the more experienced combatants, so you would be beside someone who would give you strength. There was some confusion that day and I wound up with two others who were also in their first battle. We were pinned down and we could hear the explosions and bullets passing close, so so close. One of the guys beside me, he panicked and stood up and he was killed. After I saw that I just stood up and started shooting all over the place. I nearly shot my own people. A bomb lifted me into the air and I found myself on my back on the ground - I looked so stupid. They got me out of there. I remember them saying 'this one can't do anything'. I got given out to, but in the end our superiors said it was not my fault, that it was the fault of the commander for letting three new guys be together in that situation.... in the second battle I was afraid, but not like the first time. That battle lasted four days. Learning to advance under fire is very hard, staying pegged to the ground and moving forward."

It is difficult to imagine Yina, who seems gentler and less confident that her former comrade, going into battle. "The first time I went into combat I was shaking so hard," admits the teenager. "I was 13 at the time. That first battle lasted about 24 hours... The worst one I was in went on for over a month. Day after day, it just went on and on, all day and all night sometimes. We hardly slept, we hardly ate." The young woman raises her chin, deliberately suppressing her nervousness, as she tells of the incident that brought and end to her days as a solider. "In one engagement a bomb landed close to me and I lost my leg," she says, pulling up the hem of jeans to reveal a prosthetic limb. "After that I couldn't do much."

Despite her youth, Yina has become all too aware of the misinformation that is employed by both sides of Colombia's decades-long conflict. She admits to having been terrified when she surrendered to the army, as FARC's political officers insisted all deserters "would face rape and torture" at the hands of the national authorities. While she was not mistreated by the state forces, she is equally dismissive of generalisations and government propoganda depicting brutal internal structures within the insurgency. "Punishments depend on your antecedents, and range from digging latrines and trenches to more serious sanctions," she says. "I fought on two fronts. In the first everyone was very kind and it was OK, but the second was much tougher. Some fronts are very dictatorial, others are more like a community. There's a lot of variety."

Another former guerilla, Juan Carlos, meanwhile insists that FARC takes advantage of the intellectual vulnerability of impoverished rural youths, however. "The movement exploits the fact that 90% of its ranks have a supremely low level of education," says the one-time revolutionary, who studied politics at university before joining the organisation. "They can tell them anything and that person is going to believe it's true. Therefore there is no resistance to the political ideology, they all think they're working to create a better country."

A stocky, round-faced man in his late thirties, Juan Carlos found his way into the guerrillas after accepting a job with the National Reparation and Reconciliation Commission. The irony of how he first came into contact with FARC is not lost on the ex-solider, his face criss-crossed with scars, who also received military training in his late teens when he completed his national service in the Colombian Army. Having worked to reintegrate former FARC combatants into civilian life in the contry's capital, he would go on to join the organisation himself and eventually become chief of the Bogotá Urban Command.

"I met three separate delegations from the IRA," he reveals. "I collected them and brought them to meetings with other commanders... I don't remember all their names, but there was one group I got on really well with. Mark, John and someone else - I can't remember the third one's name... there were various delegations the came and went." He adds, with a note of pride in his voice: "I know some of the IRA guys were captured, but none of the ones I transported." (The three men who were arrested were James Monaghan, Martin McCauley and Niall Connolly)

Juan Carlos is reluctant to talk too much about FARCs' relations with the IRA, admitting that "as the commander of the urban network, I wasn't directly involved in the talks," but he admits he knew the Irish combatants had expertise in the remote detonation of explosives that his superiors were interested in acquiring.

Some time later, Juan Carlos fell out with his commanders as, perhaps unsurprisingly, they wished to begin a campaign of car bombings in Bogotá. "When they ordered me to do things that went against my personal principles I started to realise I would have to leave," he explains. "I always had disagreements over certain things, certain decisions and strategies, but I've always been of a left-wing political orientation. When you intentionally draw innocent people into the process, though... they were asking me to do things that I was not willing to do." Given his level of authority, and his knowledge of FARC's structures, Juan Carlos knew that leaving the organisation might not be easy. "It became clear that either I carry out the orders, or they would kill me," he said. "So either I ran, or I betrayed myself."

Those fighters who were lucky enough to leave the frontlines behind do their best to adapt to a civilian life, and all the joys and sorrows it brings, despite the experiences of the past. A broad, warm smile spreads acrosss Yina's face as she remembers the day she spoke to her mother for the first time in nearly five years. "I remember when I finally got her on the phone," says the young woman, who now suffers from "persecution neurosis". "She just kept crying and crying -she couldn't believe it was me." Carol, who is now studying to become a nurse, has no idea what has become of her loved ones, as her family lives deep inside FARC-controlled territory. The 20-year-old, who has 12 brothers and sisters, says she would like to return to the frontlines to help those wounded in the continuing fighting.

Juan Carlos, meanwhile, seeks to build a new life, despite having to stay below the radar of his former comrades. "It's hard to find work," admits the former insurgent, who once commanded hundreds of men. "There's six years of my life that I can't account for". When asked about the scars that cover his face, he laughs: "These?", he asks, pointing to his forehead and cheeks with a smile. "No, they came from something much more boring. I have my scars, and I'll always have them, but the ones on my body aren't the ones that matter."