A Colombian rebel discovers soft beds and iPhones after 20 years in the jungle

Yurluey Mendoza, center, and other members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC. Click here to see more portraits of the ‘anonymous phantoms’ of FARC.

‘Do you know what it’s like to spend 20 years at war?’

After joining the Colombian rebels at age 14, Yurluey Mendoza will finally be coming out of the jungle

Published on September 30, 2016

EL DIAMANTE, Colombia — “Do you want to see my gun?” Yurluey Mendoza asked about 90 minutes into our conversation.

Now we were getting somewhere. This was the guerrilla equivalent of being invited inside for coffee.

We were in the rebel-controlled hinterlands for what was billed as the final gathering of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC. On Sunday, Colombian voters will decide whether to accept a peace deal with the FARC, whose members have waged the longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere. The rebels were meeting last week to discuss the accord and figure out their future after 52 years at war.

Many, like Yurluey, are preparing to re-enter the modern world. They have spent years roaming Colombia’s mountains and forests, bathing in creeks and sleeping in crude campsites.

Talking to Yurluey was like meeting someone who had stepped out of a time machine. She has never used the Internet, never seen the ocean, never been to the movies or ridden a bicycle.

Yurluey Mendoza, 33, a FARC guerrilla fighter from the southern bloc, washes herself in the base camp in the Savannas of Yari during the 10th conference of the FARC in Colombia.

She was also clearly not used to answering questions.

“Why me?” Yurluey asked. “Why did you pick me?”

I told her I wanted to talk to someone who had spent their whole life fighting in the jungle. Not one of the younger soldiers. Someone closer to my age (39).

She glowered. “You think I’m that old?”

Yurluey, the nom de guerre by which all her rebel “comrades” know her, joined the FARC at age 14, “about 20 years ago,” she said.

Yurluey had been on a helicopter for the first time only a few days before. It was a Red Cross airlift to the FARC gathering. When she and the other fighters climbed aboard, the crew handed them foam earplugs, and one of the guerrillas tore open the wrapper and popped them in his mouth, thinking they were candy.

“I always imagined that the day I rode in a helicopter would be the day of my capture,” Yurluey said.

She has been to the big city only once, after a bomb shredded her left foot, leaving her nearly crippled. She left the jungle with a fake ID, and took a bus to Bogota, the capital, with a wad of cash for an orthopedic surgeon.

“Do you know what it’s like to spend 20 years at war?” she asked.

I said I most certainly did not.

“It’s hard,” she said. “Really hard.”

Yurluey, one of about 7,000 FARC fighters, was a member of the “Teófilo Forero” mobile column, a feared and despised rebel division linked to some of the war’s worst violence. Her right thigh had a divot from a combat wound, the bullet just missing bone. Her right eardrum was blown out in another bombing, one of six she survived.

She went several days without eating sometimes, she said: “There are times when you can’t walk from so many blisters, or your backpack chafes off your skin. Or you have to step over the bodies of comrades, who you love like family, when they fall.”

Like a lot of guerrillas, she spoke in the language of doctrine. The FARC’s enemies were “the oligarchy.” The United States was “the empire.” The guerrilla army was “the movement.”

But Yurluey was no robot. Like other female guerrillas, she accessorized her drab fatigues with big earrings, bracelets and colorful scarves. Her hair was bouncy and dyed blond. Unlike female soldiers in the United States who tend to dress and groom in a way that plays down their femininity, FARC fighters like makeup and lots of pink.

Her bed in the rebel camp was an earthen mattress of sticks and mud, fluffed with dried grass under a sheet of black plastic.

On the pole that was her bedpost hung her MP5 submachine gun. In her ammo belt was a 9mm pistol, stamped “Made in Israel” and swaddled in cellophane.

She handed me the rifle, which was worn and oily. I showed her the iPhone 6. It can take photographs and videos and send them across the world, I said. It also works as a flashlight, a compass and a map. She stared for a moment into the screen.

“There are so many new things I will have to learn,” she said.

Was it worth it, all this hardship? I asked.

The peace deal includes none of the sweeping revolutionary changes the FARC has long fought for. But Yurluey said she had helped win something, even if it was only the promise of full political rights from a government she has never trusted. She seemed tired, but not regretful.

“You do it because you tell yourself the sacrifice is worth it,” she said. “So that something in this country will change.”

Within weeks, if the peace accord is approved, Yurluey and the other FARC guerrillas will begin turning in their guns.

Yurluey said it will be hard to let the MP5 go. “That gun has protected me for so long,” she said. “But if they really open up a space for us in politics, I won’t need it anymore.”

FARC guerrilla fighters from the southern bloc are shown in their base camp in the Savannas of Yari during the 10th conference of the FARC in Colombia.

Social work, with guns

The next morning Yurluey had a wary look again, as though she was wondering if she said too much the day before. She was busy with camp chores, she said, and told me to come back later.

I returned with gifts: Medjool dates from California I’d found at a fancy market in Bogota. Yurluey picked one up, studied it, and bit down. “These are good,” she said, then ate four more and invited a few comrades to try them.

Three of Yurluey’s siblings had followed her into the FARC — two younger sisters and a brother who was later killed in combat. Her parents are growing old, and she wants to help them when the war ends.

Like other rank-and-file guerrillas whose only criminal charge under Colombian law is “rebellion,” Yurluey will probably get amnesty if the peace deal passes. She said she has a guerrilla “compañero” who would like children. Not her.

“I don’t see myself becoming a mom,” she said. “I don’t want anything right now that ties me down.” She would like to travel, to go to school, but said she will be ready for whatever postwar task the rebel leaders assign.

Over the years, the FARC sustained itself largely on the profits of the drug trade, and by levying “taxes” on families and businesses in areas under its control. Those who didn’t pay were sometimes kidnapped and killed. Yurluey asked my impressions of her “movement.” I said I thought it had lost a lot of hearts and minds with those tactics.

Yurluey said, fairly convincingly, that she had not handled cocaine and had not been involved in kidnappings. But she said the rebels “made mistakes.”

“We killed civilians. That caused suffering, and it’s something we regret,” she said. “They were errors made in the course of an irregular war that forced us to use unusual tactics.”

Yurluey described her role in the insurgency as something like being an armed social worker. In areas under rebel control, she would work with farmers to encourage them to grow more food. She taught math and reading to children in remote areas where the government did not, extolling the virtues of Marxism to their parents.

I had asked on the first day how someone like her joins the FARC. She spoke, somewhat vaguely, about wanting to fight for access to public education. She learned to read and write in the FARC, she said.

Former rebels begin to think about their future in Colombia

Play Video

(Nick Miroff and Jason Aldag / The Washington Post)

Yurluey started picking coffee beans and cleaning houses at age 8 in southern Caquetá department, where she grew up. It is one of the many isolated parts of the Colombian countryside where the presence of the state — including schools, health clinics and other government services — was scant.

On the second day, I asked again what turned a 14-year-old girl into a guerrilla fighter. She said there was another reason.

“When I was about 7, on St. Peter’s Day [June 29], I went into town with my father to see the celebration,” Yurluey said. A band in the plaza was playing songs by request. Her father asked for a popular folk ballad that had a reference to the late FARC founder Manuel Marulanda.

“Two police officers came over,” she continued. “The music stopped. They asked who commissioned the song.”

Yurluey said the police knocked her father to the ground, kicking him, then took him to jail. “I ran home to tell my mother, but she was nine months pregnant, so she told me to go back to take care of my father,” she said.

The police locked her father overnight in a cell so small he could barely sit down, Yurluey said. “There was a space under the door, and I put my hand under it so he could touch my finger. We sat like that on the floor for a long time.

“I remember how badly I wanted to be big at that moment when they were beating my father,” she said. “I think that’s when I decided I wanted to be powerful, or to be part of something powerful. To make them know they could never do that to us again.”

Yurluey Mendoza saw three of her siblings follow her into the FARC -- two younger sisters and a brother who was later killed in combat.

The staggering toll of Colombia’s war with FARC rebels, explained in numbers

The cost of Colombia's civil war is incalculable, but here are some key numbers that help illustrate the conflict.

These portraits reveal the ‘anonymous phantoms’ of Colombia’s FARC

Colombians are getting a long look at the faces of the enemy, who, it turns out, look just like they do.