SHE WAS COLOMBIA’S MOST-FEARED FEMALE REVOLUTIONARY. CAN SHE HELP IT FIND PEACE?

Her nom de guerre was Karina, but her given name—the name she goes by now—is Elda Neyis Mosquera. She was the youngest of five children born in northwestern Colombia to Jose Leopoldino Mosquera, a black man, and Flor Ester García, a white woman. Neither ever learned how to read. From the time she was five or six, she says, she woke at four o’clock each morning to sell arepas—corn tortillas—on the streets before school started. She also worked during lunchtime and before dinner, and paid for every notebook and pencil herself. “I dreamed of becoming a nurse or a baby-clothes manufacturer,” she says, but she was not allowed to go beyond the fifth grade. “My father said that, for being a mother and a housewife, one did not need to study.”

The Communists were the only political party active in Currulao, the remote village where Elda’s family lived, and at age 12 she joined the Communist Youth. A few years later, during a brief cease-fire with the government, Karina recalls, “the guerrillas showed themselves and would invite us to festivals and balls.” She was amazed by the abundance of food. “We were able to eat whatever we wanted.”

Elda was 16 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—or FARC, based on its initials in Spanish—made its pitch. She was ready to trade in her ragged clothes and grueling schedule for a uniform and a rifle. “I wanted a life that did not require so much hard work,” she tells me. The FARC recruited at least 5,000 minors to join its ranks over the decades, many against their will. Elda was not forced to enlist. “But they did deceive us,” she says. “They told us if we wanted to change our lives, our country, and live well, we could join them.” She says 300 youths from her region signed up, including 40 girls. There was no turning back. Membership was for life, and the FARC would be her only family now. Following their custom, they gave her an official alias: “Karina.”

Her father begged her to stay, “but I was at the height of my rebellion.” She never forgot her father’s parting words: “If you must go, then be a good warrior.”

There could be no good warriors in the 53-year-long guerrilla war that raged between the FARC and the government of Colombia, and drew other guerrilla groups and paramilitaries into the carnage. The conflict claimed 267,000 lives, including thousands of children. It displaced more than seven million people and resulted in more than 36,000 kidnappings.

Then, in 2016, the FARC signed a peace deal with the Colombian government. It was over, at last. Or was it? Egged on by the controversial right-wing former president Álvaro Uribe, many Colombians believed that their government had caved to the FARC and papered over the true magnitude of its crimes—like those of Karina, who had quickly ascended to a leadership position thanks to her intelligence, obedience, and appetite for war. As the ruthless and audacious commander of the 47th Front—a rare, celebrated female field officer in a predominantly male army—she played an indisputable role in the brutal violence perpetrated by the FARC. She has been convicted of kidnapping, murder, terrorism, extortion, forced disappearances, and other crimes. She was rumored to have played soccer with victims’ heads, a charge she denies. At one point, the Colombian government offered $1 million to anyone who could bring her in, and the military spent two futile decades trying to capture her.

A SYMBOL OF WAR
Karina’s acts of war earned her a reputation as a heartless butcher, but she now hopes to serve as a beacon of reconciliation.

Photograph by Juan Arredondo.

But Karina has also become an important witness to crimes by the FARC against the women in its own ranks. Recently, a vocal faction of female ex-guerrillas have begun testifying to a litany of abuses—rapes, forced abortions, even the execution of women for sexual promiscuity—within an organization that prided itself on treating men and women equally. A group of former rank-and-file guerrillas calling themselves “Corporación Rosa Blanca” is now calling out the FARC for these offenses, and they plan to travel to Washington to file individual petitions with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Karina acknowledges forcing abortions on female subordinates, and says it took years of solitary self-reflection for her to even comprehend why she was being prosecuted for it. She had bought into the party line that the FARC was blind to gender. “When I was there, I did not see the difference,” she says. Her repentance may never be enough to satisfy those wronged by her actions, but she says she is determined now to tell the truth about what her fellow female warriors—and she herself—endured.

Karina, 51, lives under house arrest on an army base in the tropical banana-plantation country of northwestern Colombia, not far from where she grew up. She turned herself in to Colombian intelligence in 2008, and today, after a dramatic spiritual conversion and face-to-face encounters with her victims in transitional justice tribunals, she is virtually unrecognizable as the notorious woman whose power flowed from the barrel of a gun. “I became part of the war not because I wanted to harm people but because I was a victim of the state,” she tells me as we begin talking inside the bedroom of her tiny stucco house, the only room with two places to sit. “Unfortunately, I became an aggressor.”

In the 1960s, I traveled to Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer and helped build the first school in a mountain community above Medellín that grew lilies and cultivated coffee. The residents called me Marina and surprised me by naming the school after me. I later established a foundation to aid schools in the region after a Colombian politician asked me to help create “zones of peace” for young people. Karina fascinated me because she had once roamed the same area—as a symbol of war.

WHEN SHE WAS 17, THE FARC TESTED KARINA’S LOYALTY BY ORDERING HER TO KILL A FRIEND WITH A MACHETE.

In 2016, during one of my frequent trips for my foundation work, I saw residents of the town of El Carmen de Viboral, near Medellín, waiting to tell their stories of victimization by the FARC in hopes of being eligible for reparations promised by the newly minted peace accord. This April, I went back to hear firsthand the story of the notorious female commander who believes she still has a role to play in helping Colombia move beyond the violence of the past half-century—not just the violence committed by the FARC against its enemies, but the misogynistic violence within it.

In person, Karina exudes a soft-spoken calm that is startling in light of her history. The only sign of her violent past is her glass right eye, the result of a battle wound she sustained while leading an attack against the same army brigade that now serves as her friendly captors.

Her deepest scars are invisible. When she was 17, she says, the FARC tested Karina’s loyalty by ordering her to kill a close male friend with a machete and watch him bleed to death. She complied. “That marked my life forever,” she says. “He was a person I really cared for.” [Read More…]

Source: Vanity Fair

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