Published October 16, 2012
OSLO, Norway – The peace talks opening this week in this chilly Nordic capital seek to end a conflict rooted in land tenure grievances that has pitted Colombian against Colombian for nearly a half century.
Yet it is a European, a 34-year-old Dutch guerrilla, who is stealing the pre-negotiation limelight as the largely peasant movement employs her in what many consider a bid to boost its international appeal.
The talks were, in part, delayed because the Western Hemisphere's last remaining major leftist insurgency insisted on naming Tanja Nijmeijer, a linguist by training, to its delegation at the last minute.
Rebel leader Timoleon Jimenez insisted Monday in a broadcast interview that she be allowed to join its negotiating team for the talks' inaugural session, which begins Thursday.
But the government resisted, and Colombian left-wing newspaper editor, Carlos Lozano, tweeted Tuesday that she would join the talks when they move to Cuba at the end of the month.
Nijmeijer has spent a third of her life in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and is the only known European among its estimated 9,000 combatants.
"Regrettably, what the FARC is doing with Tanja is a strategic and a propaganda maneuver," said Colombian military analyst Alfredo Rangel. "She has no political weight in the FARC, no rank, no influence."
He argued that her role is to whitewash the rebels' image in Europe, where they enjoy more support than in the United States, which has been Colombia's close ally in a withering military campaign that badly weakened the FARC over the past decade.
The Colombian journalist Jorge Enrique Botero, who interviewed Nijmeijer in the jungle in 2011, says she represents something very important for the FARC: that their struggle is international.
Her language skills are important, Botero added. "I have heard her speak German, Dutch, Spanish, English, French and Italian."
Liduine Zumpolle, a Dutch peace activist who works with rebel deserters and has tried to persuade Nijmeijer to quit the armed struggle, derisively called her the FARC's "pretty face of international solidarity."
She said the rebels surprised the government less than a week ago by putting Nijmeijer on its negotiating roster. President Juan Manuel Santos' government, during six weeks of secret preliminary talks, had insisted that only Colombians take part in the formal negotiations, she said.
Colombian officials have declined to publicly discuss the Nijmeijer issue. However, an adviser to its negotiating team, the president's older brother Enrique Santos, told the AP that the talks' start was delayed by the Nijmeijer issue as well as bad weather in Colombia and the task of suspending arrest warrants.
Under an agreement signed in August the talks were to have begun in the first half of October.
The peace talks mark the fourth attempt since the early 1980s to end a conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. The government has said it expects results in a matter of months, not years, or it will shut them down.
An agenda set during six months of secret talks in Havana calls for agrarian reform, full political rights for the rebels and guerrilla disarmament once an agreement is signed. The FARC would also get out of the cocaine trade, its chief financing source.
The United States and European Union consider the FARC a terrorist organization and five of the six members of its ruling secretariat are wanted by the U.S. on drug trafficking charges, with $5 million rewards out for each.
Nijmeijer is herself a wanted woman. She was indicted in 2010 by a grand jury in Washington along with 17 other rebels for alleged hostage-taking and other crimes related to the five-year jungle captivity of three U.S. military contractors whose plane crashed in 2003 while on a surveillance mission.
Nijmeijer joined the rebels that year, and gained fame when she complained of disillusionment in a diary found in 2007. In its pages, she complained about the strict discipline imposed by the FARC's male commanders — no smoking, no phone calls, no romantic relationships without their consent. She said rank-and-file rebels were hungry and bored while FARC leaders were materialistic and corrupt.
"How will it be when we take power? The wives of the commanders in Ferrari Testa Rossas with breast implants eating caviar?" she wrote.
There was speculation she would be punished, even shot.
But in 2010, she appeared in a video distributed by the FARC pledging allegiance to it. Dressed in olive green fatigues and cradling an assault rifle, she said she would stay in the FARC "until victory or death and there's no going back."
Zumpolle said Nijmeijer, the second of three daughters from a middle-class family, is fully committed to the cause.
Analyst Leon Valencia, who heads the Nuevo Arco Iris think tank in Colombia and published a 2010 a book about Nijmeijer, says she is, above all, a survivor.
In her early years as a rebel, she belonged to a rebel force near Bogota that was decimated by the military. She later survived the September 2010 bombing raid that killed the FARC's field marshal, Jorge Briceno.
"She is a survivor of an enormous state offensive that completely destroyed various fronts," Valencia said.
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera reported this story in Oslo and Frank Bajak reported from Lima, Peru. AP writers Libardo Cardona and Cesar Garcia in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.
Vivian Sequera on Twitter: http://twitter.com/viviansequera
Frank Bajak on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fbajak