Published January 13, 2015
The army stumbled on the handwritten diary during a raid on a guerrilla camp. It lay near the embers of a communal kitchen where fleeing rebels left their breakfast untouched.
"I'm tired, tired of the FARC, tired of the people, tired of communal living. Tired of never having anything for myself," wrote the author, a 29-year-old Dutch woman.
Colombia's government couldn't have hoped for better propaganda against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It leaked excerpts from the diary found last June to the media, even making available an English translation of the Dutch entries.
The first known person from outside Latin America to join the region's largest rebel army wasn't just disillusioned. Like most FARC foot soldiers, Tanja Nijmeijer apparently wasn't permitted to leave.
"This would be worth it if I knew I was fighting for something. But I don't really believe that anymore," she wrote on Nov. 24, 2006, according to the excerpts released by the government.
What exactly impelled Nijmeijer, a child of Europe's bourgeoisie, to take a journey from peace activist to guerrilla fighter with the nom-de-guerre "Eillen" remains largely a mystery — even to people who knew her well before she joined the FARC in early 2003.
More than a dozen friends, former colleagues and fellow peace activists interviewed by The Associated Press described a young woman deeply disturbed by social inequalities and guilt-ridden over her privileged life. Nijmeijer's family refused to discuss her plight, saying doing so could endanger her life.
Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, meanwhile, was happy to use the case to counter "guerrilla chic" in Europe, where the FARC — classified a terrorist group by both the United States and the European Union — has a small but determined group of supporters who run pro-rebel Web sites.
In the diary, Nijmeijer abhors the strict discipline imposed by FARC's male commanders — no smoking, no phone calls, no romantic relationships without their consent. She says the rank and file are hungry and bored, and describes FARC leaders as both 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 writes.
Santos told AP that the Nijmeijer case should help dispel foreign leftists of the notion that the FARC is heroic.
"In certain circles in Europe, there still exists the romantic image of the guerrillas as Robin Hood, or Che Guevara, fighting the bad guys for the benefit of the poor," he said. "Nijmeijer fell into this trap."
Nijmeijer wrote her thesis on the FARC at the University of Groningen in her homeland, then traveled to Colombia in 2000 on a work-exchange program.
She taught English to well-heeled children at a private school in the western city of Pereira, winning praise from fellow teachers for professionalism and a gentle classroom demeanor.
But Nijmeijer socialized little, and worried colleagues at the Liceo Pino Verde with her weekend excursions on Colombia's perilous highways, where rebel roadblocks and banditry were then frequent.
"I remember arguing with her that it was unsafe to travel by bus at night, but she was very independent and didn't listen," said Diana Angel, head of the school's English program.
One destination, Angel and other colleagues said, was the southern town of San Vicente de Caguan, at the center of a Switzerland-sized safe haven ceded to the FARC to facilitate peace talks that collapsed in 2002.
Nijmeijer's political education was also shaped by her experience volunteering almost daily in a poor shantytown near Pereira.
"Colombia was the turning point," said a college friend from Holland who worked with Nijmeijer in Colombia. "She was so shocked by the gap between the rich and poor and was determined to do something about it."
In August 2001, she got her chance, joining a humanitarian mission organized by leftist European groups to one of Colombia's most conflicted regions, southern Bolivar state.
The monthlong "International Caravan for Life" sought to deliver three tons of humanitarian aid on a barge to peasants caught in the crossfire between right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels.
At the steamy port of San Pablo, on the Magdalena River, the aid workers encountered resistance from local authorities. For two days, people believed to be acting on orders of paramilitaries detained the barge.
"We were all frightened," said Jacqueline Downing of Oakland, Calif., then an undergraduate at Oberlin College in Ohio. "But Tanja was very composed and helped others overcome their fear."
To ease the tension, Nijmeijer picked up her guitar and led 60 fellow activists in a sing-along of "One Love" by U2. The group later advanced into rebel-controlled territory, where their arrival was celebrated by guerrillas, and delivered the cargo.
What subsequently prompted Nijmeijer to join the FARC remains unclear.
"In February 2003 she sent an e-mail saying she was going to the jungle to teach indigenous people and couldn't be reached by phone or e-mail. I had my doubts, but no firm evidence she ran off to join the rebels," said the friend from Holland, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid causing problems with Nijmeijer's family by violating their wish for privacy.
Nijmeijer's parents, in a brief statement to Dutch media, said a faxed letter arrived in 2003 that "made it clear" their daughter had joined the FARC. They said the mother visited her daughter in a jungle camp but couldn't woo her back home: "Tanja's mind was not to be changed."
"By joining the FARC, she has gone extremely far in her idealism," the parents said. "The family has the strong impression that she has been influenced badly by certain contacts."
Dutch diplomats in Bogota would not discuss the case, citing the family's desire for privacy. Snapshots of Nijmeijer's family vacationing in Turkey — without her — were found stored in a laptop found by soldiers during the June 18 raid that yielded her diary.
Also on the computer, shown to AP by military intelligence officers, Nijmeijer appears in a photo holding what appears to be a rifle. Other files contain instructions on how to build bomb detonators with cell phones.
Nijmeijer has not been heard from since the diaries were found, which would not be unusual given the FARC's status as a clandestine rebel army. Former FARC members say they believe that whatever privileges Nijmeijer had, such as e-mail, have certainly now been rescinded.
Felipe Salazar, who quit the rebels last year, said Nijmeijer likely was severely punished for indirectly aiding the enemy — forced to build trenches or demoted to cooking duty — but not killed. He said Nijmeijer's only hope of being reunited with her family probably would be to embark on a risky escape.
But FARC spokesman Raul Reyes disputed that view during a recent interview with the Dutch network TV Nova, although he gave no details about Nijmeijer's location or health.
He said Nijmeijer was more than welcome to go on holiday with her family. "If she needs a month, then fine."