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In pictures: A farewell to arms?

Judith and Isa, two Farc guerrilla fighters from the Arturo Ruiz mobile bloc, pose inside one of the Farc camps in November 2007

On 26th September 2016, a peace deal was signed between the Colombian government and the country’s biggest rebel army, Farc. For our latest issue we spoke to Spanish photographer Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, who spent 15 years documenting the different sides of the 52-year-old civil war. Here are some of his stunning photos and the stories behind them.

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Members of the Arturo Ruiz mobile bloc, a special unit in Farc, in 2007

“After spending a lot of time in regions under their control, in 2006 I decided I wanted to start documenting Farc. I wrote a message on a piece of paper saying, ‘This is Alvaro. I’d like to meet you,’ and gave it to a friend of mine who was a member of a Farc militia. At first he said ‘What are you doing?’ But he went and three days later I had a meeting with Walter Mendoza, one of the top commanders of the rebels’ Occidental Bloc. The meeting was surprisingly nice. Mendoza is a very interesting guy who has read a lot. He’s someone you can sit down with for a rum and a good conversation, even if you disagree with most of the things he says.

I spent the next six months documenting Farc in the San Juan river area and discovered a completely different side to Colombia. In those remote areas, the only face of the state that people knew was one of aggression: helicopters, the army, bombs. They didn’t have any other idea of what ‘government’ means. These areas are very underdeveloped – with no hospitals, no roads. So groups like Farc and ELN, the National Liberation Army, the second biggest left-wing guerrilla group, acted like a sort of government, ensuring law and order.

Soldiers of the Colombian army’s 8th Mobile Brigade carry out a military operation against Farc in a village in the municipality of Planadas in southwest Colombia in May 2011

Soldiers of the Colombian army’s 8th Mobile Brigade carry out a military operation against Farc in a village in the municipality of Planadas in southwest Colombia in May 2011

“Local people freaked out every time they saw soldiers from the Colombian army, or heard a helicopter. They knew that because of where they lived they carried a stigma which made them suspected of being guerrilla supporters. The late 2000s were the time of the ‘false positives’, a scandal in which state soldiers abducted more than 3,000 poor or mentally disabled young men, executed them, put them in guerrilla uniforms and showed them to their superiors to raise their body counts – allegedly in exchange for promotions or extra holidays.”

Puerto Berrío, Antioquia, is the cemetery with the highest number of ‘NN’s – dead bodies which could not be identified – in the country. People often ‘adopt’ NN graves, decorating them and even naming and baptising the anonymous dead

Puerto Berrío, Antioquia, is the cemetery with the highest number of ‘NN’s – dead bodies which could not be identified – in the country. People often ‘adopt’ NN graves, decorating them and even naming and baptising the anonymous dead

“Between 1958 and 2012, 218,094 people died in the civil war. The paramilitaries were especially known for their brutality. Of the 1,982 massacres documented between 1980 and 2012, 1,166 were at their hands. While the paramilitaries started out as self-defence armies, they were often used to do the government’s dirty work, and over the decades they have evolved into criminal gangs with very strong military access. I was always nervous spending time with paramilitaries. During 15 years of covering Colombia, the moment I felt the most threatened is when I was photographing a cemetery in 2015. Shortly after arriving, I got my camera out and two paramilitary guys came up to me saying, ‘You have five minutes to leave’. In Colombia that means ‘It’s up to you’ – you choose to leave, or you choose death.

That cemetery was in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia. It’s the biggest cemetery in the country for so-called ‘NNs’. NN stands for ningún nombre, no name. About 28,000 bodies which have been found across the country, dumped in mass graves or floating along the river Magdalena, have yet to be identified.”

Guerrilla members dance during a party at one of their camps, July 2016

Guerrilla members dance during a party at one of their camps, July 2016

“Despite the fact that it was strictly about attaining armed peace, the signing of the peace deal was still a great opportunity for the country and I never expected that it would be voted down in the referendum on 2nd October 2016. The Colombian people got the opportunity to ratify the peace deal but 50.2 percent voted against it – a margin of only 55,000 votes.

I don’t know how [Farc] will handle this situation, but my impression is that they really are all for peace. I think they have discovered that after 52 years of armed conflict, weapons haven’t won them anything. But with every day that passes without a solution, there’s more and more pressure on the peace process and a single spark –  an attack by the paramilitaries or a dissident army faction – could set the country on fire again.”

This is an excerpt from ‘A farewell to arms?’ published in DG #24. To see the full story, buy the issue in our shop. Go here for more of Ybarra Zavala’s photography. 

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