Former rebels trade rifles for footballs

After 53 years of warfare, kidnappings and massacres, former rivals now meet in peace for the one sport that ignites passion in Colombians.

After more than 50 years of warfare characterized by intense fighting, a rash of kidnappings and bloody massacres, Colombian rebels signed a peace accord with the government in November 2016 and, seven months later, laid down their weapons. The former rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish) turned to soccer as one of the ways to integrate into civilian life.

Editor's note: Because of safety concerns, all subjects interviewed for this photo essay are under assumed names.

Kleider Palma put on rubber boots, the ones used for patrolling as a guerrilla, and hung his soccer cleats around his neck. He boarded the metal boat, or panga, and, along with some assembled FARC comrades, headed toward the nearby village of Vegaez in northwestern Colombia. The stated mission was not a skirmish with government forces as in the past but an afternoon of soccer, the sport that ignites passion in war or peace.

"We would carry 70 kilos [154 pounds] on our backs and walk up to 30 km [19 miles] a day up on the mountains. The first thing we would do before camping would be to clear a field with our machetes so we could play soccer. Sports have always been part of our guerrilla way of life," said Kleider, who saw his dream of becoming a professional soccer player cut short by the civil conflict in Colombia.

After 53 years of guerrilla warfare, in June 2017, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, turned in their weapons to the United Nations, signaling a new era of peace for Colombia. Now FARC is transforming itself into a new political party and reinserting thousands of former guerrillas into civilian life. Some local media reports even point to eventual participation in the national soccer league.

"We approached Dimayor [Colombia's professional soccer authority], and we asked if we could include two B division teams, one of women and another of men, all former fighters, in the association. We have the talent to play against professional teams, like América de Cali or Nacional de Medellín. We should give our men and women that chance," said Walter Mendoza, the sports director for FARC, who spoke with an assumed name because of security concerns.

The first step in this ambitious endeavor of launching a FARC soccer club involves scouting talent through clinics set up in the majority of the 26 transitional settlements where the estimated 7,000 former rebels have demobilized. This is compounded by the overall financing of such a club, as FARC notoriously funded itself during war by means that included drug trafficking and kidnapping ransoms.

Meantime, in most of the FARC settlements, former fighters are playing in and winning local soccer tournaments. At the Tumaco settlement on Colombia's Pacific coast, self-sustaining projects are underway, and the players are selling raffles to buy equipment and cover travel to tournaments.

"We've started to see an increase in local communities participating in sports events. Soccer is a way for us to win hearts and minds," said Edison Romana, an alias for the once-feared FARC commander who now runs a settlement. "For example, women's soccer teams' participation has increased. The fact they see our [FARC] women play has empowered women in these remote communities to organize and play."

At the village of Vegaez, on a recent afternoon, soccer matches were played to the rhythm of reggaeton blaring in the background. The last game that day was something no Colombian would have imagined a year ago. Once enemies on the battlefield, the Colombian Army and the FARC former guerrillas met on the pitch, without weapons and with a soccer ball.

Along the Acari River, members of the 34th front of FARC in Vegaez, in the Antioquia Department of Colombia, travel an hour to play soccer with local residents. Kleider Palma (far left, rear) joined FARC as an 18-year-old after the group visited his village and he was recruited along with his cousin. He said he always wanted to be a professional player but never had the chance. For now, FARC teams play against local communities as they await assistance from the government's sports agency, Coldeportes, to start a talent program that can foster players to eventually play professionally.

In Vegaez, members of the FARC soccer team of the transitional zone of Vigía del Fuerte (right) prepare to play a match against the 94th Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Armed Forces (in uniform, on left). According to lead members of the FARC Sports Division, the idea in the majority of the transitional zones is to start winning hearts and minds through friendly soccer matches.

The FARC team share strategies before a match against the Colombian armed forces. The FARC Sports Division hopes that, with government assistance, it will have the opportunity to train soccer players and pick the best talent within its members to keep alive the dream of having a professional soccer team.

Members of the FARC soccer team of the transitional zone of Vigía del Fuerte (solid jerseys) play a match against the 94th Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Armed Forces. After FARC signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, about 7,000 members disarmed and were settled in 26 transitional zones around the country.

The Colombian armed forces and the FARC rebels fought each other for decades, with heavy losses on both sides and thousands of civilians killed. Here, the former rivals play a friendly soccer match as part of the reintegration. The 94th Infantry Battalion also provides security for the former FARC members as they transition into civilian life.

Members of the FARC soccer team from Vigía defend against the Colombian armed forces team. Vigía go on to win the match. Soccer was always part of the FARC way of life in the mountains; after a day of hiking, rebels would clear fields for playing before setting up camp.

Former members of FARC 34th front celebrate their team's winning a soccer match 11-5 against the 94th Infantry Battalion of the Colombian Armed Forces. These fans traveled with the players to Vegaez from the Vigía zone to cheer them on. The women were also part of a soccer team, but since several former rebels have left the transitional zones because of the lack of opportunities and the slow implementation of reintegration programs, the team no longer plays.

After the games are over, former members of the 34th front of FARC return by boat to their transitional zone of Vigía del Fuerte.

The FARC men's team from the transitional zone of La Elvira plays against the local team of El Cedral.

Cardboard cutouts of Manuel Marulanda, the founder of FARC, are stacked on the side of one of the houses built for former FARC members in the Tumaco transitional zone. At this zone, 400 former FARC rebels are starting the transition into civilian life by developing projects in agriculture, sports and education.

Ruben Ramirez (28), with his partner Adriana Escobar (29), relax in their room in the transitional zone of Tumaco. Ruben fractured his right fibula while playing soccer after stepping into a hole on the side of the field. He wanted to train and become a professional soccer player, but he never got a chance after he joined FARC at 17, escaping from the crossfire with the Colombian army in his native village of Meta. He hopes to recover the time he lost during conflict and have the opportunity to play soccer again.

At the transitional zone in Tumaco, former FARC rebels hold soccer practice. Edison Romaña, the head commander in the transitional zone and former commander of the Oriental Block of FARC, explained: "Without sports, there is no life. We used to march for 30 km every day, carrying up to 70 kgs on our back, and we would play a game of soccer at the end of the day."

Alveiro Escobar stands after soccer practice in the transitional zone of Tumaco. Alveiro joined FARC as a 20-year-old, having no other alternative, after a relative was killed in war. Despite being shot seven times, five times in his right leg and twice in his arm, he still enjoys playing soccer with his fellow FARC members. "I might be 40, but I still make the young players chase me and fight for the ball."

Margarita Torres, who is seven months pregnant, bathes at an improvised bathing station in the transitional zone of Pondores in La Guajira Department. After the peace agreement was signed last year, Margarita and many of the FARC women decided to start their own families.

Members of the Caribbean Bloc of FARC unload and stock the month's food ration provided by the Colombian government to the estimated 300 FARC fighters who live in the transitional zone of Pondores. Everyone receives a monthly payment of 700,000 Colombian pesos (around $250), which allows for the purchase of appliances and personal items to aid the slow transition into civilian life.

In the transitional zone of Pondores, members of the Caribbean Bloc of FARC attend an Excel training session provided by SENA, a governmental training program. Most former fighters have little formal schooling, and the programs are not tailored to meet their grade levels.

Members of a FARC women's soccer team and members of the team from the nearby village of La Esperanza practice drills before a friendly women's tournament. In the transitional zone of La Elvira, leaders hired coaches to train the soccer teams. The government's Coldeportes also provides assistance to transitional zones, implementing and monitoring sports activities.

Residents from the nearby villages of Los Robles and El Cedral come to support their local teams, as members of the FARC women's soccer team and comrades sit in the stands between games. The women's soccer teams have played with local communities since April 2017.

"Las Diosas," the FARC women's soccer team (in black), plays against the local village of La Esperanza. Xiomara Mendez recalls that, in times of combat, they would play soccer in the middle of the jungle, and two women were always included in the men's teams, but they never had the opportunity to play all-women games. Mendez joined FARC eight years ago in Meta, Colombia, and she was later moved to the sixth front of FARC, which used to operate in Cauca, where she now lives.

A FARC women's soccer team plays against the local village of La Elvira at the transitional zone indoor football court. In the weekend tournament, there were four teams playing against each other, two from FARC and two from the nearby villages, La Elvira and La Esperanza.

The FARC women's soccer team participates in drills with the team from La Esperanza during the tournament in La Elvira in Cauca Department. Even in remote communities, more women are organizing and participating in FARC soccer teams, playing in friendly tournaments almost every weekend, according to the coordinator.

A player from La Elvira gets assistance from the referee after being knocked down during a match against a FARC women's team. Despite not having much financial support, the FARC teams travel wherever they are invited, or the civilian teams come to the transitional zones to keep the teams active and engaging with the nearby communities.

After a soccer practice, Alveiro Escobar sits outside one of the houses in the transitional zone of Tumaco. Each zone is divided into sections, and most everyone has a job or duty. Escobar is in charge of overseeing and maintaining his section, which includes 15 houses.

Members of the 59th front of FARC bathe in a stream near the transitional zone of Pondores. For some, adjusting from living in the mountains for so many years to having a home has been a challenge. At the time of this picture, these members already had showers built for them in the transitional zone, but many, including these two former members, preferred to bathe outside.

Former FARC members gather in the transitional zone of Pondores. Members of the Caribbean Bloc of FARC attend night briefings, during which topics including the peace process, internal issues, and current national and world news are discussed. Today, many are worried about what will happen next, as the reintegration programs and financial assistance that were promised have yet to be implemented in every transitional zone. Many are now leaving out of frustration and safety concerns.

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