The Dutch woman who ran away with Colombia's FARC

Tanja Nijmeijer moved to Colombia in 2002 where she joined the FARC guerrillas in their fight against the Colombian state. She will be a part of their negotiating team during peace talks in Cuba this month.

Jorge Pérez/Prensa Latina/AP
Dutch rebel Tanja Nijmeijer from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is seen during a press conference at the headquarters of the Cuban agency Prensa Latina in Havana, Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Smiling into the camera, a young female guerrilla picked up her guitar and dedicated a song to her family. "Don’t Cry For Me Argentina," Tanja Nijmeijer sang to her parents in Holland, who had not seen her in years.

This scene in a 2010 documentary provided the first images of Ms. Nijmeijer since she abandoned a comfortable life in Holland eight years earlier to fight a communist war against the Colombian state.

This fall, her startling story was brought back into the international spotlight, following the launch of the first official peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in more than a decade. Colombia's internal war has persisted for more than 50 years. 

In the run-up to the second phase of talks between the government and the FARC due to start in Cuba on Nov. 15, the FARC announced Nijmeijer would form part of their negotiating team. Apart from being a rare female presence at the peace talks and helping internationalize the rebels' image, Nijmeijer provides unusual insight into the "revolutionary" psyche, and her trajectory from a middle-class European childhood to a spot alongside the FARC’s top commanders can be hard to fathom.

Raised by a close-knit family in a small Dutch town, by the age of 20 Nijmeijer yearned for adventure and responded to an ad in a college newspaper to teach English in the western Colombian town of Pereira. She arrived in 1998, the year the Colombian government agreed to hold new peace talks with the FARC following a series of debilitating large-scale rebel attacks on its forces.

Nijmeijer had a “strong social conscience,” her mother, Hannie Nijmeijer, said.  She was shocked by the extreme poverty and inequality that surrounded her in Colombia, and became interested in its politics and violent history. The FARC were fighting for social justice and agrarian reform, though many question their true ideological commitment today.

Nijmeijer later said the answers that satisfied her curiosity came from a fellow teacher who showed her some of the country’s poorest regions. The teacher taught her about communist movements around the world, and some claim she was deliberately radicalized.

‘Never imagined becoming a guerrilla’

By the time Nijmeijer returned to Holland a year later, she was consumed with the “fever of the revolution,” she told filmmaker and writer Jorge Enrique Botero, who spent time living in her jungle encampment in 2010.

At home in Holland, she threw herself into socialist activism, distributing radical newspapers and taking part in protests, but when she imagined her life trajectory there she felt despondent. “Soon I would buy a little house, have a husband and three children, while at the same time, the revolution would be taking place in Colombia,” she said.

So Nimeijer saved enough money to return to Colombia in 2002, and though purportedly “never imagined becoming a guerrilla,” quickly became involved in the FARC’s Antonio Nariño Urban Network in Bogota, helping to bomb police stations and public transportation.

Within a year she left the capital for a life of guerrilla warfare and extreme hardship in the Colombian jungle.

“She has a very unusual psyche,” says Leon Valencia, an analyst and former guerrilla who wrote a book about Nijmeijer. She has no limits, Mr. Valenica said, often feeling extreme rage, sadness, happiness – “But the one thing I have never seen in her is fear.”

According to Mr. Botero, the film director, she has “an incurable inclination toward danger and fear.” She struggled initially with the intense physical challenges, such as the days-long marches between encampments loaded with equipment, an induction for new recruits. But she stuck to a strict regime to develop a tough physique. About one-third of the FARC forces are thought to be female.

Nijmeijer's tenacity and bravery under attack impressed her superiors, says Botero, and she rose through the ranks, becoming assistant to a senior commander.

‘Her place in the world’

Emotional ties were harder to overcome, though. Life as a guerrilla meant abandoning her family for good, something “which caused her a lot of pain,” says Botero. “But like all FARC members, the guerrillas became her family – the structures and behavioral codes are very similar to family life, and they learn to forget.”

“At first I had true nostalgia, thinking about the fact I was never going to see my family again, but now it doesn’t affect me,” Nijmeijer can be seen telling Botero with a smile in his 2010 documentary. Dressed in combat gear with an AK-47 on her lap, she said, “I remember the good times.”

Her family traveled to Colombia several times to try to bring her home. Her mother broadcast messages on radio frequencies used by the FARC, and even flew across the jungle in an Army helicopter begging over a loudspeaker for her daughter to flee.

But after being granted a jungle meeting in 2005, Mrs. Nijmeijer left knowing her daughter would never leave the rebels, she told reporters. “Tanja came to feel this was her place in the world,” says Botero.

But she did have moments of doubt. Nijmeijer’s diaries were discovered at an abandoned FARC encampment in 2007, and quickly became front-page news. "One lives here more or less like a prisoner. This would be worth it, if I knew I was fighting for something, but I don't really believe in this anymore," she wrote.

Nijmeijer claimed her words were manipulated, telling Botero she was a committed and proud member of the FARC, and would stay that way until “victory or death.”

'Much hope' for peace

Now it seems there may be another way out.

Following speculation over whether she would be allowed to participate in the Colombian negotiations as a foreign national, Nijmeijer arrived in Cuba this week. 

In an interview with Agence France-Presse news agency, she said life as a guerrilla had been "very hard" but said she felt very happy and fulfilled to be "part of the people's army... [at] the center of the fight for social justice." 

“The Colombian people are a vanguard, an example of nonconformity, of fighting spirit, and that has always attracted me," Nijmeijer told AFP, adding that she had "much hope" for the upcoming peace process.

For many, simply by virtue of being a woman, Nijmeijer will be a very welcome addition to the talks – lack of female participation in previous talks has been cited as a contributing reason to their failure. This time around, the negotiating teams are again predominantly male.

For her family, Nijmeijer's presence goes beyond gender roles and representation: This is the first time they have seen their daughter in nearly three years, sparking renewed hope that one day, she may even return home.

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