For Jhon Jairo Riaño, on some nights, the past resurfaces in a recurring dream. At times, he finds himself engaged in combat, running. Then he wakes up soaked in sweat.
Riaño has spent a decade assimilating into society as a former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). I met him in Bogotá in late January 2018. He was clean-shaven and dressed in casual attire: blue jeans and a light button-down shirt. His humble demeanor gave little indication of his troubled life as a former guerrilla combatant. The military captured Riaño in 2007. He then demobilized to participate in a reintegration program. Years later, he still finds it challenging to confront his memories.
His dreams are often violent. Although he says he has consulted psychologists regarding these continued lapses, he hesitates to discuss his experiences in detail. “Those are difficult memories that I wouldn’t want to discuss with any human being,” he said. “And it’s not easy opening up about it because of the current post-conflict context in Colombia.”
Located in the fourth-floor at a high-rise building in Bogotá’s historical center near La Plaza de Bolivar, the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization (ARN), is tasked with helping reintegrate more than 57,000 persons who demobilized voluntarily after participating as armed actors in the conflict. Its location in a large metropolitan area also offers ex-combatants who seek its services a certain level of anonymity.
Former combatants like Riaño face an uncertain future. Some 93% of ex-combatants suffer from a degree of psychological trauma, according to the ARN. Ex-combatants continue to face stigmatization as they try to move on with their lives. The implications of these experiences have led to an intensifying debate, especially as more than half of the former guerrillas have now left disarmament camps as part of a separate reintegration process with the government and will confront challenges as they resettle across the country. Will these former combatants be able to reconcile with their pasts—and will Colombian society let them?
Joining the FARC
Growing up in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta near the Caribbean coast, Riaño was accustomed to the presence of the FARC. The guerrillas mostly came from desolate rural communities. His paternal grandparents owned a farm that grew green plantains and yucca. He recalls the day the FARC’s local coalition, Frente 1920, stopped by the farm. Riaño and his four brothers hid inside the house, but didn’t lock one of the doors. “They began talking to us,” Riaño explains. “They told us: ‘Don’t be afraid, we didn’t come to do anything, we just want to talk with you,’.”
The mountainous region around Santa Marta was a “red zone” for the conflict because of its resource-rich territory. During those years, the FARC was often the only governing body in the absence of the state. Their presence at times offered a kind of protection to communities as right-wing paramilitary forces and drug traffickers were also vying for territorial control.
Riaño said he decided to join at age 14 to escape family issues, since he never quite recovered from his mother leaving the family at a young age, he said. He also had no access to formal education. “For many of us, we saw them [the FARC] as a solution in the region,” he said. “Anything we had we would work out with them.” Riaño came to perceive the FARC as his alternative family.
But combat was hard for him to handle. “In the beginning when you participate in combat it’s difficult because you’re not used to it and when you see the fire that is being produced from both sides you become afraid,” he said. “The expectations that I had was that in any moment the military would place a bomb and leave me disabled, dead, or I would lose my friends. And that marks you for the rest of your life.”
In 2007, Riaño was captured by the military, where he then spent time in prison. Shortly after, he decided to leave the armed group, he told me.
Reintegration programs for former combatants in Colombia are not new. There are generally two phases of the process. In individual demobilizations, persons initially enter into the custody of the Minister of Defense and reside in “Peace Homes.” Then they are referred to the ARN, where they receive a modest stipend for living expenses. A collective reintegration, for its part, involves the mass demobilization of an armed group following a peace agreement, which, at times, has occurred under the oversight of a temporary government counsel.
Between 2003 and 2015, it is estimated that more than 48,000 persons entered a reintegration program, with 26,901 ultimately choosing to demobilize. Many combatants fled or were captured by the military at the height of the government’s counterinsurgency campaign against the FARC around the turn of the century, which received billions of dollars in U.S. funding support. Those who abandoned ranks mostly resettled in urban areas. Some were able to obtain services through a previous version of the reintegration policy that addressed the needs of armed actors who had voluntarily left the conflict, in exchange for intelligence information.
These programs had mixed results. For example, a reintegration effort between 2003 and 2006 after the demobilization of various paramilitary factions including the country’s largest, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), resulted in a high level of recidivism into criminal gangs. The most commonly cited cause often centers on the lack of prospective employment opportunities for those who demobilized, given the ongoing violence.
There has been less attention afforded to the emotional legacies of war in its impact toward recidivism. Diego Jones Navas, ARN program director, said there were policies dedicated to ex-combatants, both guerrilla and paramilitary, who had demobilized in that same period, but these programs were quite divisive. “To construct this puzzle and understand someone in the process of reintegration in that moment was difficult because there were seven experts looking at one person,” he said. “And the focus on reintegration was a ‘criminological’ approach…let’s reintegrate criminals.” Public discussion is now attempting to focus the attention away from criminalizing and pathologizing ex-combatants through using alternative and interdisciplinary treatment models.
Jose Armando Sarrias, a researcher at the National University of Colombia, has found that in the earlier iterations of the program, a significant number of ex-combatants wanted to return to the armed groups, which Sarrias attributed in part to a lack of continuity. “Once they access these programs of reintegration, they are completely erasing their past, their experiences, their memories,” Sarrias told me. Addressing these experiences, he said, are “fundamental to supporting these new challenges that they confront in the future.”
Confronting the Psychology of War
The current reintegration program through the ARN is making inroads into helping ex-combatants face their pasts and to understand the impact it has on them today. “Any sort of treatment for this sort of psychological affectation has never ever had to do with erasing your memory,” said Francesco Bogliacino, a researcher at the National University of Colombia who has studied trauma among victims of violence. “The issue is, how do you cope with it? You don’t want the negative consequences of what’s happened, but you cannot erase what’s happened. ” Facing this violence can also result in long term cognitive defects, he said.
Many who suffer from conditions related to long-term exposure to violence—from anxiety, insecurity, fear, paranoia, cognitive impairment, and post-traumatic stress—attend group therapy sessions where former combatants on either side of the conflict learn to process their emotions together. (Those diagnosed with more serious psychological conditions are referred to the Ministry of Public Health for treatment.)
The agency’s mission is to allow these individuals to become self-sufficient in learning how to cope with the challenges of their transitions to civilian life. The program requires a six-and-a-half-year commitment, during which time specialists provide them with guidance in various aspects of their daily lives such as education, health, career guidance, and social well-being.
Luis Hernando Varón, who joined the FARC at 13 in Caqueta, told me that it was initially very difficult for him to face a room half-full of combatants who were once considered his enemy. “The war ends up making you very cold,” he said. “It dehumanizes you a lot.” He was taught to justify any action, however violent, as a consequence of war. It wasn’t until someone asked whether he felt anything after killing someone that he began to understand the effect his experiences had on him. During his group sessions, Varón met a military officer who was a victim of the guerrilla group’s actions in the region he patrolled, which helped him to realize that he had become immune not only to human suffering but also to his own past. “A moral damage is believing that everything bad that happens or what has happened is good,” he said. “You assumed that it was the necessity that brought you to war. And, no, that shouldn’t be an excuse in the past or now.”
Several other combatants shared a different perspective. Sandra Vera, who is originally from Tolima—a town located 122 miles outside of Bogotá—grew up surrounded by guerrilla combatants. Her family fled their home after being displaced by paramilitaries. She enlisted at 15 and became pregnant, but was separated from her daughter at her birth. Years later, after experiencing the loss of a close friend, she escaped to reunite with her five-year-old daughter.
Vera said the reintegration process at the ARN has helped her cope with the transition. The experiences she’s been through, she said, “are things that you have to carry, but you have to know how to manage them, and allow others to publicly recognize it.”
Marta Sánchez, an ex-combatant with the FARC, explained that she still evades conversations about her past, but that she is becoming more confident in discussing her future goals. “It was also very difficult when someone asked me what I did, where I studied and what I do,” she said. Serna admitted she often made up stories since she was afraid of being judged for her participation as a former guerrilla. “I mean your life has really revolved inside the conflict. You have nothing else to say.”
For Riaño, it has been a long road to recovery. He has, for example, not been able to confront his estrangement from his family. He also fears that if he has a family, he will have difficulty connecting with them because of his experience at war. “I haven’t had the peacefulness of having my family—let’s say I have kids, but I share very little with them,” he said.
Professionally, Riaño has had to work his way up upon arriving to the city starting with manual labor such as sweeping streets. He then worked several odd jobs, at one point managing a store. Eventually, he found employment along with Varón on a contract basis with government agencies working with at-risk youth, including the Mayor’s Office in Bogotá. He hopes to attend college and study social policies. At the ARN, he continues to advocate for community reconciliation among demobilized combatants.
Varón, for his part, has found it difficult to maintain steady work. He says he often has confrontations with his employers, due to what he describes as “defensive” nature. After being taught for years in the FARC to question authority, it is sometimes hard for him to take orders from them. Both employers and former combatants remain suspicious of one another.
Meanwhile, stigma continues to affect such relationships. “Stigma is one of those violent fruits of the conflict that could perpetuate future violence if there is no explicit work done toward serious and deep processes of reconciliation,” wrote authors Carolina Meza and Katja Groesschen in an article for Fundación Ideas por la Paz (Ideas for Peace Foundation).
The representation of ex-combatants as being prone to criminal activities is also part of a wider discussion that has included campaigns in local communities. Recent surveys indicate that this perception may be slowly shifting. The Observatorio de la Democracia (Democracy Observatory) at the University of the Andes indicated in a 2017 survey that only a minority of residents in conflict areas believe living among ex-combatants would increase criminality, reduce labor opportunities, and corrupt social values. A similar survey conducted in 2015 in urban regions reported that 60 percent out of more than 3,000 of the respondents were willing to forgive the guerrillas, according to Fundación Ideas Para la Paz.
Reconciling with Society
Colombians still feel uneasy about the FARC given their role. According to the National Center for Historical Memory (CNMH), 94,579 of the war’s death toll are attributed to paramilitaries, 36,682 to guerrillas, and 9,837 to state agents. Some individuals also strongly feel that former armed actors shouldn’t receive any kind of government assistance. Public perception is split on the implementation of the accords more broadly. The 2016 national referendum that resulted in a narrow ‘no’ vote against the peace process offered a telling sign, indicating that many voters were not willing to forgive the FARC without due process. “We are talking about many generations, and a change in culture, and in the manner that society understands that they were part of an armed group and they’re not anymore,” said Andrés Diaz, a psychologist, who has focused on demobilized populations. “We still have a long way to go.”
The peace agreement established the government’s role to facilitate mental health services to former members of the armed group, although there have been structural delays in its implementation. Meanwhile, the program itself appears to be floundering. More than half of the 8,000 FARC members who laid down their weapons left the disarmament camps since 2017. The ARN reported that in the same year there were no newly registered guerrilla ex-combatants from the peace process in their program. The ARN has continued to provide guidance, although a separate commission is handling the oversight of the FARC’s reincorporation. This has provoked concerns given the continued violence as many choose not to pursue reintegration.
Indeed, criticism cited in independent studies among former ex-combatants who participated in the reintegration route with the agency has focused on the consequences of not contending with their pasts, which could be a factor in terms of recidivism. The program also lacks a gender component for women to understand their identities as former combatants.
Research in peace studies suggests that focusing on reconciliation will have more positive outcomes in the long term toward inclusion within peace processes. According to one study, including “forgiveness” as a core component of reconciliation is crucial. At the ARN site in Bogotá, several of the ex-combatants indicated that they learned about the value of forgiveness, they reflect on their own ways, and understand tolerance through emotional intelligence.
But the effort to repair the historical relationship among the former combatants, the government, and society extends beyond national initiatives. Community outreach programs have worked to shift the focus on demobilized actors, minimizing their threat to society toward a more comprehensive understanding of integration.
Victims and former armed actors are still attempting to heal from the aftermath after years of civil conflict despite the ongoing violence. It is estimated that the war resulted in more than 200,000 deaths with seven million being displaced from their homes. But the past is not always prologue. According to the ARN, 76 percent of those who arrive at the agency do not return to illegal activities.
Riaño still avoids discussing his life as a former combatant—though he continues to relive it in dreams.
Raisa Camargo is a freelance journalist. She is a graduate of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies Masters’ program at New York University.