Monday, May 31, 2010

Dutch Guerrilla in Colombia Leaves Puzzling Trail


BOGOTÁ, Colombia

THE personnel file compiled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia on Guerrilla No. 608372 seems mundane at first.

It says she was born on Feb. 13, 1978, taught languages in Pereira and
Manizales, and in 2002 joined the Antonio Nariño urban warfare cell in
Bogotá, from which she received explosives training. A photograph shows
an alluring young woman in a beret. Nom de guerre: Alexandra.

But as a cache of documents captured by Colombian security forces from a
guerrilla redoubt in 2009 confirms, this was no ordinary rebel. The file
is a new piece of the puzzle surrounding the woman, whose real name is
Tanja Nijmeijer and who is capturing the imagination of her adopted
land, Colombia, and her home country, the Netherlands.

“She’s one of the most fascinating figures in our long war, present at
many of its critical junctures over the last decade,” said León
Valencia, a former guerrilla here and one of the authors of a newly
published book about Ms. Nijmeijer.

The book and a separate documentary, which was broadcast this month on
Dutch television, are adding to Ms. Nijmeijer’s complex tale, contending
that the Dutch-born guerrilla is not only alive but has risen to the
inner circle of the rebel group, known as the FARC, as a personal
assistant to Víctor Suárez, a top commander better known as Mono Jojoy.

Raised in the village of Denekamp in the north of the Netherlands, Ms.
Nijmeijer took up radical politics as a student of Spanish in Groningen,
a university city, where she joined its squatter scene. From there she
went in search of adventure a decade ago to Colombia, then in the throes
of the ugly war that continues at a reduced level of intensity to this day.

After a short while, she chose a side, joined the FARC and in 2003
vanished into Colombia’s jungles.

The world might never have heard of Ms. Nijmeijer, now 32. But Colombian
soldiers chanced upon her diaries, handwritten in Dutch, in a FARC camp
raided in 2007, which caused a sensation here that year, offering a rare
window into daily life within the FARC.

In some entries, she described the boredom of the guerrillas, living in
the hinterlands, far from cities. In others, she longed for her family
in the Netherlands. In yet others she described her sexual escapades
with fellow rebels, while lambasting the domination of female recruits
by their male commanders.

Throughout her writings, she touched repeatedly on a theme that seemed
to vex the rebels themselves: whether they stood for anything anymore,
having evolved from their idealistic origins into a force that
comfortably financed itself from the drug trade and survived by
kidnappings, extortion and the forced recruitment of children as combatants.

“How will it be when we take power?” Ms. Nijmeijer asked in one entry.
“The wives of the commanders in Ferrari Testa Rossas with breast
implants eating caviar?”

Ms. Nijmeijer, then said to have adopted the code name “Eillen,”
lamented that rank-and-file guerrillas like herself had to be content
with the occasional treat of a bag of potato chips and bottle of soda
pop. She bristled, “Sometimes I want to stop following orders from a
bunch of sexists who try to kill birds with assault rifles.”

Not much was heard from Ms. Nijmeijer after the disclosure of her
writings, save for a video from 2005 obtained by Colombian officials and
broadcast on television here. The images showed her in fatigues,
flashing a smile and asking her parents to forgive her for disappearing
into this country’s war.

SIMILAR tales of adventurers from wealthy countries who move to Latin
America to assist armed revolutionary movements rarely end well.

For instance, New York’s Lori Berenson finally emerged this week from 14
years in Peruvian prisons for aiding a plot by the Túpac Amaru rebel
group. Before that there was William Morgan, the Ohio-born gunrunner who
fought with Fidel Castro before being executed as a traitor when the
Cuban Revolution began eating its own.

Ms. Nijmeijer’s odyssey from Dutch bourgeois comfort to remote Latin
American encampments puzzles many, including her own family. “She’s a
member of an organization that takes hostages and deals in drugs,
there’s no denying that,” her aunt, Mariette Olde Dubbelink, said by
telephone from Denekamp.

“This is a very difficult situation for us,” said Ms. Dubbelink, who
speaks on behalf of Ms. Nijmeijer’s family. “We don’t know if she is
alive or not. That is the big question.”

In January, Colombian military officials told Ms. Nijmeijer’s family
that the FARC had mentioned in their radio communications a woman called
Holanda. That was proof, they said, that Ms. Nijmeijer might still be
alive. But the Defense Ministry, questioned here on her status this
week, declined to comment.

Details about Ms. Nijmeijer that have emerged from the book and
documentary describe an existence of intrigue and daring. She arrived in
Colombia about a decade ago with a job to teach English in Pereira, in
western Colombia, and then ventured with European and American peace
activists into FARC-controlled areas.

Later, she embarked on a double life in Bogotá in 2002 when she joined
the rebels, teaching business English to well-heeled students at the
Wall Street Institute by day while training with the FARC’s urban
guerrilla operation by night.

Under the guidance of Carlos Lozada, a Soviet-educated FARC commander,
Ms. Nijmeijer learned to concoct bombs. But pressure by security forces
provoked the FARC to move Ms. Nijmeijer and much of her unit from Bogotá
into the rural interior, where they have remained for the last seven years.

The FARC made use of her language skills, and as late as 2005 she seemed
to be in good spirits, according to the video images broadcast here.
Then her circumstances seemed to change, judging from what she revealed
in her diaries. Monotony set in. She tired of living in encampments
without privacy, and of being humiliated once in front of her comrades
after criticizing a superior.

“Would I have been happy as a civilian in the Netherlands?” she wrote.
“Engaged, married with children?”

BUT later in the same passage she expressed pride in her experiences in
Colombia: “I’ve seen it all. Here I move like a fish in water, the
jungle is my home. The FARC is my life, my family.”

Liduine Zumpolle, a Dutch human rights activist and one of the authors
of the new book on Ms. Nijmeijer, thinks that, over all, she regrets her
decisions. “Tanja joined the FARC with romantic ideals in mind, and now
she is trapped,” she said.

FARC leaders have a different view, it seems, after having apparently
forgiven Ms. Nijmeijer for the transgressions expressed in her diaries
and recognizing that the tale of their Dutch combatant might hold some
allure for other idealists interested in the rebel group.

“It goes without saying that she’s beautiful,” the FARC boasted on its
Web site this month. “She also speaks English, Spanish and Dutch. But,
it’s surprising how modest she is! That must be because she comes from a
family that worked on the land. She’s proud of that heritage.”

In a haunting part of the documentary “Closing in on Tanja” by the
filmmaker Leo de Boer, Ms. Zumpolle, the rights activist, and Ms.
Nijmeijer’s mother, Hannie, travel to Colombia and try to make contact
with her on a radio channel received by the guerrillas. They give her
instructions on an escape route. Silence follows.

“We don’t know,” said her aunt, Ms. Dubbelink, “if she heard that appeal.”

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