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Visa pour l'image: Colombia's jungle baby-boom
In 2016, after more than 50 years of armed conflict, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) accepted a peace accord and agreed to hand over their weapons. 40 percent of the fighters were women and as guerillas they’d been banned from having children. Now babies have replaced the weapons. Photojournalist Catalina Martin-Chico went to the Colombian jungle to capture the story. Her photo-reportage Columbia Re(birth) is on show at the Visa pour l’image festival in Perpignan.
“I wanted to call this work (Re)birth because for me it’s about the birth of these babies but it’s also about the rebirth of the mothers,” the Franco-Spanish photographer told RFI. “Because they have been 53 years as guerillas and when the peace agreement was signed all these babies arrived as a sign of new life. So they are really re-learning how to live in society after all these years in the jungle. I said [to myself] these babies are doing their first steps and also the mothers and fathers are doing new steps.”
From transition camps to villages
Martin-Chico first went to Colombia in 2017, a few months after the peace agreement was signed, and then around nine months later in early 2018. On each occasion she lived alongside the men and women in three of the 26 transition camps where they were learning to prepare for the return to civilian life.
On her first trip the camps hadn't yet been opened and the former fighters were still living in guerilla conditions: muddy ground, uniforms, the only visible weapons were the ones the guards held.
It was still run like an army camp: “At sunrise the commander gathered everybody in files, they made the distribution of tasks, had showers all together, cooked together, the same community life."
Martin-Chico shared it all, getting close to the women, gaining their trust.
And in the midst of the mud one of the first babies was born, to a woman called Olga.
She's photographed standing in front of her khaki tent breast-feeding her newborn.
"Olga is her war name, but now she reverted to the previous name Angelina.”
Youngsters who joined the FARC, often aged between 11 and 15, were forced to change their names as part of the complete severing of ties with their past to protect their families.
“Olga entered the FARC when she was very young, at 11, after a difficult childhood. It might be the case of several of them and might be the cause of them joining a community and an army.
"She didn’t have an abortion during the time of the guerilla, the contraceptive injection they received every month worked on her, but she was one of the first ones falling pregnant when the peace agreement arrived.”
“She’s a tough girl saying sometimes she doesn’t feel anything. She used to say that her heart was closed and tough but she’s learning to open her heart with this new baby.”
'I deserve this baby'
When Martin-Chico returned to the jungle in 2018 “the landscape was completely different”. The camps had been opened and some FARC had left and gone back to their families after 10 or 20 years of separation. Those that remained had built villages and roads; simple houses replaced the tents, civilian clothes the combat fatigues.
“No more weapons and babies everywhere,” laughs Martin-Chico.
Yorladis, eight months pregnant, is photographed showing her imposingly large, naked tummy, her husband lying next to her on their double bed.
“I met her in 2017 in the camp and again in her new house. It’s her sixth pregnancy but her first baby.”
She explains Yorladis had been pregnant five times and had five abortions; the last one at six months.
“It was a real delivery, as she said, and she remembered how painful it was. She had to dig a little hole next to her tent and bury it. She thought she was OK with this but at the end she confessed she couldn’t sleep and cried all night. She moved camp the next day and said her baby was somewhere in the jungle.
“This sixth pregnancy was important for her and she said laughing, because they are not dramatic about that, she said ‘I deserve this baby’.”
A difficult transition between two moments of history
After a life of armed struggle in the wild, the chances of finding a job in civilian life are limited.
“They try to work as bodyguards or in farming,” says Martin-Chico, “but it’s not always easy. They couldn’t raise cattle or grow vegetables during the fighting, only when it was calm.” Most of the time they bought food from local farmers.
Some, like Chechis and Leonardo chose to go and live in town. Photographed with their two year old in front of their small flat, they look worried and live in fear of being rejected.
260,000 people died during the 53-year conflict and seven million were displaced. Memories die hard.
“Things don’t change from one day to another and things are not black and white, there’s tons of tonalities of grey,” says Martin-Chico. “They are in this transition between two moments of history.”
"The Columbian people voted no to the peace deal. Half of the population don’t want the FARC to just live on their own with the help of the government, they think they committed crimes and they should be judged and should be jailed.
“So FARC don’t know how to behave in civil society, they don’t know how the people see them and they don’t know if they are in security living their own lives. "So they’re trying little by little to reintegrate into society, but cautiously.”
When he took up office in August this year president Ivan Duque promised to make changes to the peace deal saying it had been too lenient on the FARC. Martin-Chico contacted several of former female fighters to get their reactions. Would they consider taking up weapons again?
“The ones I spoke to say ‘now we have the children, there’s no going back’. So really my subject became an important issue I think because these kids are not here only as a symbol of peace but also a guarantee.”
Look at more of Catalina Martin-Chico's work here