World’s unlikeliest tourist spot
SOME of the world's most notorious guerillas fighters are now charging tourists to get into their camps, instead of once forcing them to pay a ransom to leave.
It's meant to be a tourist destination, but for The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia fighters, it's their ticket to making a new kind of living after the 53-year war.
About seven million people were displaced and 250,000 killed - most of them by the right-wing paramilitaries fighting for the government against FARC.
At its height, FARC had 20,000 fighters and is thought to have earned $300 million a year from extortion, bank robberies, taxing and trafficking cocaine and kidnapping for ransom.
Dateline reporter Evan Williams visited Tierra Grata, Colombia to see how some of these notorious guerrilla fighters are integrating back into society - 18 months since the FARC guerrilla's signed a peace deal ending one of the world's longest-running guerrilla insurgencies.
"Driving into the Colombian mountains I really wasn't sure what to expect of the veteran guerrilla fighters we were about to meet," Williams said.
But no longer able to rely on drugs, extortion and kidnapping to fund their cause, the ex-fighters have come up with savvy business solutions, popular with today's social media generation - eco-tourism and their own YouTube channel.
FARC are now attempting to make their former jungle camps a tourist haven.
"The idea is that people have the full experience of the activities we performed in our daily
routine, of the way we used to live when we were combatants," former FARC guerrilla Lucas tells Dateline at a camp.
"Most Colombians only knew about the conflict through the mainstream media. We want people to see it from a different perspective, from another angle. So they can have a full understanding of the conflict and be able to make a critical analysis of what happened and why."
An online news service New Colombia TV, set up by ex-FARC fighters, including Manuel Bolivar, is continuing the FARC agenda by championing the poor and dispossessed.
It is a media outlet driven mainly by Facebook and Twitter.
The team learnt about TV production by making FARC propaganda videos during the war.
"I stopped shooting with a rifle to shoot with a camera," their star reporter, Paula, tells Dateline.
"Our editorial policy is to work within vulnerable sectors, places where there are social struggles, where they are still fighting for social justice," she said.
Manuel is an active member of the FARC political party, who heads the YouTube channel New Colombia. He was recruited by FARC at 18 while studying social communication and journalism.
But long before helping set up the news service 18 months ago, a government agent told him to cease his FARC activities or be killed and so Manuel fled to the mountains where he spent the next 16 years producing FARC propaganda through the guerrilla radio station "Voice of the Revolution".
He described being a Guerrilla fighter as "a life of much struggle, of much effort, of much work, of a lot of discipline."
Manuel said the good thing about New Colombia TV is that "we tell what the other media do not do, and this attracts a lot of public and gives us a lot of support and our audience grows every day."
"Because we are with them in their struggles, in their demands, making visible and not only are we informing, but also that we are building from that information mechanisms of empowerment of the communities for the transformation of their realities," he said.
Dateline reported that while many guerillas are keen for a fresh start and acceptance, much of the population still carries the scars of the war, discovering reconciliation and rebranding is not a simple process.
THE CHILDREN OF EX-GUERRILLA FIGHTERS
During reporter Evan William's visit to Colombia, mainly to find out how some of the world's most notorious guerrilla fighters integrate back into society after putting down their guns, he made another startling discovery.
"This wasn't something we had really come looking for and I wasn't really prepared for the full impact of what I had just heard," he said, referring to a classroom of toddlers to children aged 11 or 12.
They were the children of ex-fighters who had only just been reunited with their parents as a result of the peace deal.
Williams discovered that as a matter of FARC policy, all children born to FARC mothers during the war had to be left with friends or relatives. It was too dangerous for them to stay in the jungle with their parents as they were constantly on the move and at risk of attack from government forces.
"The teacher told me many of these children were just getting used to the fact that they even had a real mother - and that the mothers were just starting to learn how to be parents."
He said some of the children were rejecting them and some of the parents were finding it hard to know what to do.
"They are only now paying back the emotional debt they feel they owe the children," the teacher told Williams.
Elsa, now 45 years old, was one of those parents. She joined the FARC at 15 after relatives were killed by the death squads. A few years later she fell pregnant.
"Some people say FARC forced us to have abortions," she said. "But that's not true, my son is proof."
When Williams asked her why she didn't stay with her son, she said: "I couldn't, once you were in FARC the paramilitaries could arrest you, disappear and kill you and your child.
"It happened to people. I had to return and I had to leave him for his safety."
For this reason, she had no contact with her son, Fernando, for 25 years.
She left him with a friend when he was 18 months old.
"I remember the day," Elsa recalled. "He was playing with some toys when I turned and left him, I was immediately worried - would he get his bottle, would he be OK, but thank God she was wonderful."
As Williams and Elsa chatted, an elderly lady with regal high cheek bones and thick grey hair sat quietly. It was Elsa's mother, Mercedes. She had no contact with her family for 30 years.
"I thought she was dead that I wasn't going to see her anymore," Mercedes told the reporter, sitting quietly with a faraway stare. "Her father kept telling me that she was still alive, walking somewhere but I wasn't so sure."
Then as a result of the peace deal, Mercedes was told that her daughter was, in fact, alive and looking for her. "I still don't really believe it," she told Williams. "I thought it was a lie."
"Don't cry mum, you found me, we are fine," Elsa said, hugging her sobbing mother.
According to Dateline, in the decades of conflict 250,000 people lost their lives and Colombian society was torn apart, with victims, separations and terror on all sides.
However, suspicions, concerns and major challenges remain especially under a new President who's no fan of the peace deal with FARC, Williams said.
"But in this one moment a family of three generations sitting together after decades of separation seemed to embody what the peace deal could do for Colombia," he said.
Watch the full report, What the Farc? on Dateline on SBS On Demand.