Colombian rebels-turned-politicians sworn into Congress

With the swipe of a taupe shade of eyeshadow and the swearing of an oath, Sandra Ramirez's transformation from rebel guerrilla to senator was complete.

Eight ex-combatants with Colombia's once-largest rebel group were sworn into office Friday in another crucial step in implementing the country's peace accord, taking seats in Congress alongside some lawmakers who for years were bitter enemies.

"This is a big responsibility we'll be shouldering," said Ramirez, the widow of a legendary guerrilla leader. "It's a change from life in the mountains, from boots in the mud."

The fledging politicians represent a small faction in a Congress that has the task of pushing forward key aspects of the peace agreement. The rebels were guaranteed 10 seats in the legislature as part of the accord, a stipulation that has angered many Colombians.

In his address to the new legislature, outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged the hesitation of Colombians to embrace the former rebels as lawmakers, but he said including them in politics is a powerful demonstration of democracy.

"It fills me with satisfaction that those who for more than half a century fought the state and its institutions with arms today bow to the constitution," Santos said.

The oath ceremony comes just weeks before conservative Ivan Duque assumes the presidency amid signs that the peace accord remains on shaky ground. Duque vowed throughout his campaign to modify important aspects of the agreement, though he has softened some of his positions since the polarizing election.

Two of the former leaders of the disarmed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia didn't take their seats in Congress on Friday. Seuxis Hernandez remained jailed in Colombia on U.S. drug charges while Ivan Marquez is holed up in a rural camp for former guerrillas, telling comrades he fears for his safety.

Adam Isacson with the Washington Office on Latin America said the absence of Marquez, the rebels' chief negotiator during peace talks, was concerning.

"It sends a signal of skepticism that may influence a lot of mid-level leaders' decisions about whether to give up and join a dissident group," he said.

Colombia's conflict between leftist rebels, paramilitaries and the state left at least 250,000 dead, 60,000 missing and millions displaced in a war that still haunts many. Even as the number of homicides drops to a four-decade low, in many parts of the country drug traffickers and smaller illegal armed groups still wreak havoc. Since the signing of the accord, over 300 social leaders and dozens of former rebels have been killed.

Many fear the wave of violence could portend a repeat of events in the 1980s, when dozens of leftist politicians affiliated with the Patriotic Union party were gunned down.

Ramirez said the ex-combatants taking office Friday were aware of the threats they face.

"It worries us immensely," she said.

On Friday morning, Ramirez woke up at 5:30 a.m. and prepared for the monumental day in her transition to life as a civilian. She put on a cream skirt and an emerald blouse. Then she went to a small beauty salon in a working-class neighborhood and had her hair and makeup done.

As the hairdresser finished gently curling the ends of her long brown hair, Ramirez took out a pair of earrings bearing a cluster of pearls.

"Do you like these?" she asked one of her assistants.

"They're very beautiful," the young woman said.

Ramirez was the partner of chief commander Manuel Marulanda until his death in 2008 and still goes largely by her alias, Sandra Ramirez. In Congress, she was sworn in with her birth name, Griselda Lobo. She eventually plans to legally change her name to Sandra Lobo, reflecting the dual identity many rebels harbor after years of being called by a nom de guerre.

To prepare for life as legislators, she and her comrades took a crash course at a university that taught them about the role of congress, the various types of laws and how to introduce a bill.

They are calling their coalition the Group for Peace and plan to focus on implementing the accord and defending human rights. Among their first proposals are ideas to improve conditions for young children in remote, rural parts of the country and better guarantee access to water.

"We never imagined ourselves here in Congress, debating bills," rebel leader-turned-senator Carlos Lozada said as he entered the stately legislature building.

The former guerrillas face a steep challenge in winning over Colombians and exercising any pull in Congress. They won less than 1 percent of the votes in the legislative elections and remain deeply unpopular in much of the country.

Many Colombians think the rebels should go before a special peace tribunal before taking roles in Congress.

"They should pay first for all the bad things they did, for all the hurt they caused Colombia," Harold Gonzalez, a hotel administrator, said as he watched a group of teens playing a game of outdoor chess blocks from Congress.

Ramirez said the ex-rebels are doing their part in taking responsibility, by meeting with victims and apologizing for their crimes. She said they are now looking to embark on a new chapter, though not forget the struggles of the past.

She said she awoke Friday with mixed emotions. She felt ready to take on her new role, but couldn't help thinking of comrades who had dreamed of a day like this, but died before it came.

"It brings up memories and longings, wishing they were here for this moment," she said.