By Jonathan Stock
Tanja Nijmeijer of Holland spent more than 10 years fighting with the rebel group FARC in the jungles of Colombia. More recently, she has been part of the guerillas’ peace negotiating team in Cuba. What drives her?
Until recently, there had long been only two possible fates awaiting Tanja Nijmeijer: a grave in the Colombian jungle or a cell in an American maximum-security prison. Nijmeijer has never had any doubts as to which option she would prefer. “I will die in the jungle,” she says.
Nijmeijer is wanted by Interpol for three cases of kidnapping, the use of a firearm during a violent crime and supporting a terrorist organization.
On this afternoon, she arrives a few minutes late to our agreed meeting place, a large hotel in the Cuban capital of Havana. Behind the tinted windows of the hotel lobby, we see her walking up the driveway. Her back is bent and she walks slowly, accompanied by a bodyguard from the Colombian guerilla group FARC, of which she is a member. Perhaps his job is to protect her, or perhaps it is to make sure that she doesn’t run away.
FARC, one of the world’s oldest rebel groups, punishes desertion with death. The sliding glass door opens and her narrow mouth twists into a smile. “How is this supposed to work?” Nijmeijer asks.
She wants to know which of the five languages she speaks will be used in the interview and then orders a cappuccino. When the men in the lobby turn around at the sound of her harsh laugh, they see a 36-year-old woman with soft eyes and plucked eyebrows, wearing earrings and a dress with a floral pattern. Her hands shake during the first hour of the interview as she smokes. Hollywood cigarettes. A tennis match is on TV in the background. Nijmeijer talks about the trick to making a smokeless fire in the jungle.
It was long impossible to meet with Nijmeijer. She lived and fought in the jungle, in an area the size of Sweden, and most of the time she was fleeing from the Colombian army. She was considered lost and sometimes she was believed dead. But even if she had been found, say her adversaries, her brain had been manipulated and she could speak only in Marxist phrases. That was until the end of 2012.
After more than 10 years in the jungle, radio messages were sent to Nijmeijer’s camp instructing her to leave her hiding place. She was given six days to reach a secret rebel rendezvous, the coordinates of which were included in the message. Together with a group of companions, she hiked along muddy trails through the mountains at night, setting up camp on palm leaves during the day. The Colombian military demilitarized an area of 50 square kilometers to provide the rebel safe passage. A Red Cross helicopter was waiting for her at the rendezvous and she was flown to Bogotá and then to Cuba.
FARC Poster Child
Nijmeijer obeyed the instructions from her commander, as she had learned to do. She arrived in Havana after 10 years without access to cars, the Internet, cell phones or ATMs. There, she learned that she was part of a high-ranking FARC delegation appointed to negotiate a peace treaty with the Colombian government.
Nijmeijer was tasked with supporting the delegation with her English skills. Since then, she has been translating the delegation’s statements, updating the website, sending Tweets and posting on the rebel group’s Facebook page. There is likely, though, a second reason she was chosen beyond her language abilities: that of serving as a poster child for FARC.
In addition to death and prison, a third option has now been added to Nijmeijer’s scenarios for the future: peace in Colombia, bringing an end to the world’s longest civil war, which began 50 years ago.
More than 200,000 people have died since then, many at the hands of FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, whose original mission was to champion the rights of the poor.
FARC and the government have been at the negotiating table in Cuba, neutral ground for both sides, since November 2012. The negotiations revolve around six issues: land reform, disarming the guerillas, compensating the victims on both sides, putting an end to the drug trade, FARC’s future political role and the implementation of the agreement. However, as there is no ceasefire yet, the Colombian military and FARC are still at war.
The Interpol search for Nijmeijer has been suspended for the negotiations in Cuba, creating a small window of time to speak with the wanted terrorist. And there are many questions.
No foreigner has risen as high within the ranks of the FARC leadership as Nijmeijer, officially known as Guerrillera Number 608372. What motivated her to join FARC, an organization accused of smuggling cocaine, setting land mines and staging attacks — in addition to kidnappings of people from farmers to politicians like Ingrid Betancourt?
‘I Would Be Very Frustrated’
There are times when she thinks about the life she could have led, says Nijmeijer: a house in the Netherlands, three children, a bourgeois profession. She is silent for moment as she glances around the hotel lobby, which symbolizes everything she despises: an espresso machine, a bag of peanuts for $4, Red Bull and a bored-looking employee standing in front of an aquarium. “I would be very frustrated today,” she says.
Three or four months after joining the rebels, Nijmeijer burned her passport in her company’s cooking fire. She no longer felt a need to own a passport. “And that was that,” she says. It was the end of her old life.
There were three steps that took Nijmeijer to FARC, and the first of them was a coincidence. It was mid-December 1997 and Nijmeijer was 19. She had just left a university lecture and walked into the cafeteria on the second floor of the Romance Studies Institute in Groningen. She got herself a cup of coffee and opened the student newspaper, where she saw an ad looking for an English teacher in Colombia. She had never been to South America. It sounded exciting, so she applied. “Do you know that there is a war in Colombia?” an official at the embassy asked her. “No,” she replied.
She took the second step because she felt guilty.
In Colombia, she taught English in a school for the children of wealthy families in Pereira, in the foothills of the Andes. Whenever she left her tidy apartment community after breakfast, she would see the homeless digging through the trash. She saw starving people not far from shopping malls in Bogotá. She often wept. As she was sitting on the school bus one day, she saw an indigenous family walking barefoot through the dirt. One of the children on the bus pointed at the family and shouted: “You’re poor and we’re rich!” Nijmeijer was ashamed — and she had questions.
She turned to a female mathematics professor she had met. “Don’t you Colombians feel sad to be living in a city where people in the north have everything while those in the south have nothing?” The professor replied with a question: “Don’t you Europeans feel sad to be owning everything while other countries have nothing?” Nijmeijer didn’t know how to respond.
‘The Wrong Path’
The third step followed a mission.
After her year in Colombia had ended and she was back in the Netherlands, Nijmeijer felt gripped by a strange frenzy. She believed that she had to bring about change. Isn’t force sometimes necessary to achieve justice, she wondered? By any means possible, if necessary? She established contact with the International Socialists, and she began selling leftist newspapers on the street and protesting in front of the parliament building in The Hague, where she and a group of activists staged a simulated massacre to protest the construction of a US military base on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, for which she spent 26 hours jail. But as a revolutionary in Europe, her options were limited. It isn’t easy to make history in a clean country like the Netherlands. Her mother Hanni, a nurse, was worried about Nijmeijer. “You’re on the wrong path,” she said. “What do you want to do with your life?”
Nijmeijer told her parents she was fed up with capitalism, which she blamed for sending thousands to their deaths. “Tanja, you just have to look at the Soviet Union to see that communism has failed,” her father argued.
“Yes,” she replied, “but perhaps it will work in another part of the world.”
She completed her degree, just as she had always finished everything she had started. Her parents wanted her to work as a manager in a meat factory. But Nijmeijer, still dreaming of revolution, returned to Colombia, where she met with the professor. I don’t want to be a bystander anymore, she said. The professor told her that she was a member of FARC and could take Nijmeijer to the rebels. That was how it happened.
Nijmeijer describes everyday life in the jungle: “Your backpack always has to be packed and ready to go, always. It should contain a mosquito net, tent, uniform, underwear, socks, a blanket, two bottles of gasoline, rice, beans, lentils, spaghetti, sugar, salt and flour. There are normally 20 kilos of food in the backpack, which weighs 30 to 35 kilos.”
It is as though Nijmeijer were a train that had suddenly switched to a different track, one that was now rushing toward a foreign destination on unknown rails. An activist who has counseled former FARC members in Colombian prisons for decades says: “Tanja is a rebel without a cause.” And influential minister in the Colombian government calls her “a broken human being, a hostage of her ideology.” The new man in her life, a soldier with FARC, says: “She is one of us, a camarada.” And, finally, her mother says: “She will always be my daughter.”
It is a Friday evening, a few days after our first meeting. Nijmeijer is walking through Calle Obispo in the old section of Havana. The bars are open, music is blaring into the street and people are wearing T-shirts and shorts. Nijmeijer doesn’t like the heat. She prefers a cold and windy climate. She also complains that her bed is too soft, and says that she sleeps on the floor with a wool blanket every night. She gets up at 5 a.m. every day and takes a 40-minute run. She says that she is still a soldier.
As tourists dance salsa in the street, Nijmeijer talks about the war. “I had to beg them to let me fight with them,” she says. She was constantly treated with kid gloves, which upset her, she says. If you want recognition in FARC, she explains, you have to be able to be able to put up with hardship.
Her basic training lasted three months. She learned to allow her body to drop to the ground and open her mouth when she heard the bombers coming, to offset the pressure and prevent the eardrums or lungs from bursting. She learned how to make bombs, and how to take cover. Hearing is a crucial element of life in the jungle, where the tree canopy is so thick that the guerillas have to rely on their ears to detect approaching helicopters and aircraft. Once, when she got lost at night, she crouched on the ground and waited for six hours until dawn. Her life became a series of experiments with her own fear, and she felt stronger with each successful outcome.
When Nijmeijer goes to see a doctor in Havana, she is diagnosed with tinnitus. The doctor advises her to avoid bombs and gunfire. “I can’t promise that,” she replies.
Nijmeijer’s next step was an encounter with death. It happened on March 27, 2010, when she was attending an officers’ course in the mountains. During the day, the attendees were given lessons in revolutionary philosophy and political economics. They bathed in the river in the afternoon, and on the evening of March, Nijmeijer had been assigned to cook dinner — rice and potatoes — in an enormous pot for the 54 men and women in her company. Suddenly they heard the sound of the military’s Super Tucano helicopters and aircraft, built to fight the guerillas. The commander ordered the group to retreat.
‘I Cried A Lot’
Nijmeijer crouched in a trench she had dug the day before. She could see the pot she had used to cook the meal. She had learned never to leave anything behind, so she jumped up, grabbed the pot and hurried up the hill. A young man fell down in front of her and turned around. “Don’t let me die,” he whispered. He had been hit by machine-gun fire. She pulled out the infusion kit in every FARC rebel’s backpack and plunged the needle into his body, but he had already stopped moving. The next bombardment began a few hours later.
In a video message, Nijmeijer said: “And if the Colombian army and the Colombian government still believe that I was kidnapped and taken to this place, they should come to rescue me. And we’ll greet them here — with Kalashnikovs, mines, shells, everything.”
At night, as she listened in on the radio communications between American fighter pilots and heard exploding bombs, which she could increasingly tell apart, it eventually dawned on Nijmeijer that this was where she would die. It’s the story she tells today. There would be no coffin in her grave, she thought, and her comrades would have to choose a spot under large trees with a canopy thick enough to obscure the ground and prevent them from becoming an easy target. An honor guard would stand over her grave in the first night.
“Merry Christmas,” she told her family in a video message. “I believe we are fighting for a good cause. I cried a lot, because I miss you so much. But I also know that I’m doing the right thing here, and that I’ll stay here. I won’t leave.”
She was kept busy — collecting protection money, staging attacks on buses, interrogating three military contractors from a US company whose plane had made an emergency landing in the jungle near a FARC camp. “If our government wanted to, you would be dead in six months,” one of the men said.
“But you know that prisoners of war are the first to die in an invasion,” she replied. It was statements like that that triggered the Interpol search.
Waiting was also part of her life. Friends came and went. Pointless orders were issued. There were marches through the jungle and corrupt commanders, and the ideals were beginning to crumble. Nijmeijer was homesick and missed things like cheese, soccer and bread. When Nijmeijer found a telephone in a captured farmhouse, she called her mother. As her parents wept, Nijmeijer told them that she was doing well and happy to hear their voices again. As punishment for making the call, she was given 10 days of kitchen and latrine duty, ordered to dig a garbage pit and write 10 pages about what she had done. FARC has strict rules, and any lapse is punished. A phone call abroad is a lapse, because it puts the group in danger.
When soldiers attacked the rebels’ camp in 2007, they found Nijmeijer’s diary, an old school notebook with a heart on the front cover. On a day in November 2006, she wrote, in longhand: “I’m tired. Tired of FARC. Tired of people. Tired of living together. Tired of not having anything for myself. I’ve been in this boat for four years now. Guard duty, gymnastics, conversations, arguments, asshole commanders. I miss my boyfriend. And I feel useless here. I’m doing a boring course with Karel, which is supposed to prepare us for a city mission. But I know that I’ll never leave the jungle. I’m stuck here. And then I don’t really want to leave, either. I just want to hike, laugh, fight and cook meals, without any problems.”
What, though, is she fighting for? What are her ideals?
The former presidential palace in Havana, once the seat of government of the former dictator Fulgencio Batista, is now a museum of the revolution. An old assault gun stands in front of the building. Legend has it that Fidel Castro fired the gun from land and sank the US warship Houston, which was part of the assault fleet in the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Inside the museum, tourists stumble around the exhibition as if they were in a tunnel of horrors at an amusement park. Nijmeijer walks up the steps, past the bullet holes and past a miniature bronze statue of Castro.
Guerillas are invisible armies. They fight wars of a forgotten time, wars that are hardly ever winnable. Most guerilla wars last about 10 years, although the Cuban revolution was a military success after only two years. The war in Colombia has already been underway for 50 years.
“Our moment just hasn’t come yet,” says Nijmeijer. Then she walks into a room dedicated to Che Guevara, her role model. He is depicted as a wax figure climbing out of an artificial jungle. The day of his death is a national holiday in Cuba and his face appears on millions of T-shirts. Hardly anyone knows the leader of FARC.
Che Guevara’s carbine is exhibited in a glass case. “We have the same one,” says Nijmeijer. She talks about firearms, the AK-47, M16 and AR-15. “I’m a good marksman,” she says. For the other visitors, the museum exhibitions are about as current as the French Revolution, but for Nijmeijer they are reminders of everyway life. Her struggle is not a museum.
The question is what will become of her movement. Will the rebels be worshipped as heroes, like Guevara, or will they go down in history as drug dealers? Every missile and every tank used by the revolutionaries is on display in Cuba. What will the FARC leave behind? She ponders the question. They don’t have any tanks or ships. One item that occurs to her is the towel used by FARC founder Manuel Marulanda. They still keep that, she says.
‘We’re In a War’
The lyrics of a song Nijmeijer has written for the guitar read: “No one despairs here. We are full of morale, of fighting morale, of fighting morale, full of morale.” She wants to remain with FARC, even if she had many opportunities to flee. Because the FARC soldier who accompanied her to the first meeting is not her guard but her boyfriend. She can walk around the city alone, and she could go to the Dutch embassy at any time. But she doesn’t want to.
A few days later, we meet for another conversation on Plaza Vieja in the old city. Nijmeijer watches the pigeons on the cobblestones and drinks coffee. As we are speaking, a bomb explodes in Pradera in western Colombia, killing a man and injuring 61 other people. A week later, FARC assumes responsibility for the bombing and issues an apology. Dozens of splinter groups challenge the movement’s claim to leadership. FARC no longer has everything under control. It isn’t even clear whether it can keep the peace that is now being negotiated in Cuba.
Why do women at FARC have to abort their babies?
“Because they are soldiers. Children would keep us from fighting. Before joining FARC, every woman knows that she cannot become pregnant. But if she does, things get complicated.”
Why does FARC install land mines? “I feel bad about the children who die in the explosions, but we’re in a war. We have to find ways to defend ourselves.”
Do you support the drug trade? “We don’t grow cocaine. All we do is tax the cocaine dealers.”
Why do you kidnap people? “We haven’t done that since 2013. In the past, people were abducted for financial reasons. If we take anyone now, they’re prisoners of war.”
What about extortion? “There is no extortion, but there is a revolutionary tax. We take it from the rich if they have more than $1 million.”
She has a response to every critical statement. Her ideological framework works perfectly.
“I move like a fish in water,” she wrote in her diary. “The jungle is my home. FARC is my life, my family.”
On one evening, Silvio Rodríguez is giving a concert in front of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. The audience, lit by floodlights, consists of thousands who have come to hear the balladeer of the Cuban revolution. A white Mercedes bus has brought the guests from Colombia to the concert. Young girls offer Nijmeijer their lipstick and pour glasses of rum. Rodríguez is singing “Ojalá,” her favorite song. “I wish the dawn would not emit screams that rain down on my back. I wish that death, at least, would take me along, so that I would no longer see you constantly.” She can sing every verse. For a moment, it’s as if she were an ordinary audience member, a tourist from the Netherlands with a house and three children.
There are a few things she would like: To see “Avatar” in 3-D, to walk into a clearing one day and not feel threatened. And to make a trip to the Netherlands to see her family again.