Tanja Nijmeijer joined the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) when she was barely out of her teens. Now, at 34, the Dutch woman is negotiating for the Marxist rebels in the peace talks with the Colombian government that began this week in Oslo.
With her long, dark-blonde hair, brown doe-eyes and engaging smile, Nijmeijer is nothing if not telegenic, and her presence at the negotiations could make her something of a rebel star. But she also embodies all the things that FARC has long been unable to produce out of their own ranks: not only is she a believer in the cause, she is untainted by suspicions of involvement in the drug trade or weapons smuggling.
Nor is Nijmeijer, who hails from Groningen in the Netherlands, one of the thousands of children recruited by force by the FARC to fight for them.
Tanja Nijmeijer is the guerillas’ “innocent import.”
In Colombia, as in the Netherlands, she has long been a legend mainly because so little is known about her. In Groningen, she studied romance languages and literature for several semesters. While she had links to left-wing student groups, she was no militant. Then in 2000, Nijmeijer went to Colombia to complete an internship – and it was in the city of Pereira, located in the heart of coffee country, that the 21-year-old made a fateful decision about her left-wing convictions: she would uphold them with guns, not words.
Nijmeijer has not publicly revealed much about her new life. In an interview with Colombian journalists, she stated that the poverty she saw in Colombia, along with the brutality of the right-leaning paramilitary, were what motivated her to join the guerrillas. She was silent on the subject of FARC brutality. For her parents, she sang a breathy snippet of "Don't cry for me, Argentina," the song from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, into the microphone.
A couple of years ago, her mother tried to persuade her to return to the Netherlands, but Nijmeijer responded by saying that anyone who tried to get her to leave the FARC would have to face “mines and gunfire.”
“Until victory or death…”
At some point, however, at least privately, the Dutch woman began straddling the fence, as passages from her diary, discovered at a camp raided by Colombian troops in 2007, show: "I'm tired, tired of FARC, tired of the people, tired of communal life. Tired of never having anything for myself. It would be worth it if we knew why we were fighting. But the truth is I don't believe in this anymore."
She criticized the rebel organization for its machismo, saying that most of the women in the group never made it past being bedmates of the commanders. "How will it be when we come to power? The girlfriends of the commanders in Ferraris, with breast implants, eating caviar?”
The publication of these excerpts put Nijmeijer’s life in danger, the FARC not being known for tolerating lightly dissent in its ranks. She chose to stay with the guerrilla, even though she had also just narrowly escaped being killed by targeted military attacks by Colombian forces. In fact, the Colombian media erroneously announced her death more than once. "I will remain a rebel, until victory or death,” she wrote.
In Oslo, Nijmeijer’s official role is as interpreter for the FARC delegation; in addition to her native Dutch, she speaks English and Spanish. But unlike most FARC leaders – aging men – her young, telegenic presence will put a new spin on talks as the media compete for compelling imagery.
The Colombian government is anything but overjoyed at Nijmeijer’s presence at the talks. Dealing with a young committed woman is different from sitting across from men who have a total of over 150 arrest warrants out against them.
The reaction of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to the news that Nijmeijer would be part of the FARC delegation was an indication that the rebel group’s current top commander, Timoleon Jimenez aka Timochenko, had succeeded in his PR coup. Countering Bogota’s statement that only Colombians should be part of the talks, he said: "Both sides are free to decide who will be a part of their delegation." Let the PR battle for peace begin.