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To win the war, Colombia needs female fighters to lay down their arms

MIRANDA, Colombia — When she hears a helicopter, Tatiana Sinisterra’s instinct is to dive.
During her two years as a rebel fighter, she would throw herself into trenches during bombing raids by Colombia’s military.
But on a recent morning, Siniste

MIRANDA, Colombia — When she hears a helicopter, Tatiana Sinisterra’s instinct is to dive.

During her two years as a rebel fighter, she would throw herself into trenches during bombing raids by Colombia’s military.

But on a recent morning, Sinisterra voluntarily got on a military helicopter headed for southwestern Colombia.

She was embarking on an unusual mission to communicate with her former compatriots to convince them to put down their arms.

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The FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) have seen their ranks fall by more than half since 2002.

While intense military offensives are a large part of the reason, thousands of guerrillas like Sinisterra have also deserted the rebel group, lured by a government program that offers them entry into civilian life in exchange for disarming.

But there are still an estimated 8,000 armed guerrilla fighters. Key to the insurgency are women: They are estimated to make up between 30 and 35 percent of the FARC.

Sinisterra, along with other former fighters and human rights activists, is participating in a campaign called “Mujer a Mujer” — Woman to Woman — to persuade female fighters to leave the rebel group.

Shuttled between bases by helicopter, they use military radio stations to transmit messages encouraging female listeners in the FARC to disarm.

Some fear the FARC’s recruitment of women — particularly young girls — is on the rise because they are an easy target for a rebel group desperate to replace members lost to desertion and combat.

“They just need to fill the ranks,” said Liduine Zumpolle, a human rights activist in Colombia and the brain behind the campaign. “So what they do is rob — and I call it rob — young women from the countryside.”

When Sinisterra was 14, she ran away from home, tired of the sexual abuse she said she suffered from her stepfather. Facing few options, she found herself working as a prostitute in Cali.

One night, when she was returning from a party on a bus, men stopped the bus and ordered her and her three colleagues to come with them. “We got into the truck and that was the beginning of the FARC,” said Sinisterra, now 19. “They gave us black sweaters to put on … and from then on, it was jungle, jungle and jungle.”

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Many of the young rank-and-file recruited into the FARC come from rural regions where opportunities for education and work are sparse. High rates of domestic violence also leave many young women vulnerable to the FARC’s offers to take care of them. But once inside the guerrilla group, many find themselves subject to an even tougher life.

Women are expected to carry out the same work as men, such as participating in combat and carrying heavy loads on long marches through jungle and over mountains. But the egalitarian approach to male and female roles quickly fades as women have little chance to move up the ranks.

While FARC members found guilty of rape face execution, commanders can get away with it, according to demobilized rebels and the military. More commonly, young female rebels enter into relationships, by varying degree of will, with senior commanders to receive preferential treatment and lighter work loads. “It’s like prostitution without money,” said Sinisterra.

Yennifer Guerrero, 17, the other ex-guerrilla on this trip, said she didn’t have to put in hours of guard duty at night because she was in a relationship with her squadron commander. But then she got pregnant.

While relationships between rebels are often accepted, pregnancies are banned. A rebel who becomes pregnant faces punishment, such as digging trenches for weeks, and will almost certainly be forced to have an abortion, like Guerrero was, that is usually administered by FARC nurses in the jungle.

In some cases, a rebel manages to hide her pregnancy until it’s too late to have an abortion — as happened with Sinisterra. One night when she and her boyfriend tried to escape the FARC, rebels on guard duty shot at them, killing her boyfriend. Later, she discovered she was pregnant. After she had her baby, she had to give it up to her dead boyfriend’s family and then return to the ranks.

Three years later, Sinisterra is still trying to reconcile her role in the FARC. “They did me harm, but I also did harm,” she said. “So you become a victim and a victimizer.”

Now that Sinisterra and Guerrero are out of the FARC, they want to encourage current female FARC members to take the risk of leaving the rebel group (not only can escaping be very difficult, but the FARC often persecutes deserters or their family members in retribution).

Guerrero leans forward in her chair in the small radio station at Miranda’s military base and speaks into the microphone, hoping there are FARC members guarding camp, cooking or doing chores who are tuned in to the radio to hear her message.

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“It’s hard to arrive from the country to a city that you don’t know, it’s hard to reintegrate into civilian life, but one can do it,” she tells them. “There’s nothing better than to live a life in freedom.”

As Guerrero and Sinisterra go from one radio station to another to transmit their messages, they say their efforts are worth it even if only one woman decides to demobilize. Female FARC members are less likely to demobilize than males — while they make up at least 30 percent of the rebels’ ranks, they make up only 20 percent of deserters, estimates Col. Martin Beltran.

Several military officers in charge of the demobilization program say they now realize their efforts to convince guerrillas to disarm — including ads on the radio and pamphlets advertising the demobilization program dropped from the air — need to be oriented to connect specifically with women fighters.

Drawing more women into the demobilization program could be one of the most effective ways of weakening the insurgency. “If women would desert massively, it would be disastrous for the FARC,” Zumpolle said. “They need women to fight.”