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Saturday 2 March 2019

photo essay

We Are Indestructible

Mads Nissen has been documenting the civil war in Colombia since 2010

By Mads Nissen

More than 50 years of conflict between the government army, guerrilla rebels and paramilitary groups have led to the deaths of over 200,000 people and the internal displacement of seven million citizens, leaving visible scars on the landscape and people of Colombia.

The thick jungle of the Cauca Valley

Astri Gisela Yunda Lopez, 7, and Feryi Geraldin Yunda Lopez, 9, stand in a field surrounded by their father’s cannabis plants

Harvesting coca leaves: Yorley Munoz Munoz, 16, Sebastian Moreno Moreno, 21, Adan Alberto Hernandez Moreno, 15, Ariel Albeiro Munoz Munoz, 19, and Fray Munoz Areiza, 16  

Martin Osorio (38) with his family and Andres Hernandez (26) during
the final stage of cocaine production at a hidden laboratory in the jungle


The guerrilla community
The area was until recently controlled by FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas who, as part of the peace accords, are now restricted to designated camps under UN supervision. To maintain stability and to prevent any other armed groups, including the Colombian national army, from entering the area, locals have formed an unarmed vigilante groups to monitor all movement inside the territory.

Life in the remote mountain village of Pueblo Nuevo has been acutely affected by the armed conflict between the national army and the FARC-guerillas.

Sandra Hernandez, 16, prepares meals  at a hidden illicit cocaine laboratory 

David Espina, a FARC soldier, with partner and fellow guerrilla Andri Rivera, 31, inside a secret FARC guerrilla camp

Danilo Varego, 32, washing himself with FARC comrades inside the hidden Frente 51 guerrilla camp. He lost his arm in combat in 2005 when he was hit by five bullets

Coca leaves, foreground, are grown openly and extensively a few hours from Cali

Alexandra Mazo, 12, on her way home from school 

Children from an indigenous Indian community return home after school

A National Army soldier on guard near a FARC-dominated area

Esteban Pardo, 38, a 14 year FARC veteran, commands a guerrilla squad at Frente 51



Green shoots
With the conflict winding down in rural and remote parts of the country, scientists have started to gain access to formerly no-go areas where they are discovering new plant species

Illustrations by Lisa Anzellini


A troubled peace
As part of the peace process, the FARC has moved into UN-controlled areas. They will staying in the camp for several months where they will receive training to prepare them for civilian life. However, the peace process is far behind schedule. Houses that should have been ready months ago are still under construction; many guerrilla fighters are still living in tents. More importantly, they are questioning the government’s ability to protect their lives if they lay down their weapons. Right-wing paramilitary groups are active in the area, civil society leaders are being killed and many of the areas previously controlled by the FARC are being taken over by illegal armed groups involved in extortion and drug trafficking.


Anibal Palacios, 33, lost both his hands in 2010 as he was placing a mine

As part of the peace process, FARC has moved into UN-controlled areas

Samir Ramirez Cordoba (21) with his girlfriend and daughter in a FARC camp (PTN, Silver Vidal Mora, 57th Front) monitored by the UN.


Emergence of FARC

In 1964, a group of farmers who had survived a government massacre decided to found the FARC, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla group. Their declared aim was to topple the government and bring freedom to the people.

President Santos once declared that “making war is easy, making peace is much more difficult”. And so it seems now. In many previously FARC controlled areas, other armed groups are now moving in and a growing number of FARC dissidents are rearming and returning to their former way of life.

Since the adoption of the peace process, both previous FARC members and almost 300 social leaders and human rights activists have been murdered while millions of internally displaced have yet to get the land back that was taken from them.

Social problems persist – Colombia ranks among the 10 least equal societies in the world – and two thirds of farm land is controlled by just 0.4% of farmland holdings.

Gerson Acosta, 35, a governor and prominent indigenous leader, was the 31st leader to be killed since the implementation of peace accords in December 2016

President Juan Manuel Santos in his office

Peace activists gather daily in the Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota,  since the rejection of the first peace deal between the FARC and the government

A bloodstained taxi where the driver was a victim of “street justice”



Humanitarian instinct

In some areas an estimated 95 per cent of the residents have been forcibly displaced from their original homes due to the conflict with the FARC. Many slum areas are dominated by paramilitary gangs who extort and oppress the local population. However, after a house in their neighbourhood was used as a torture and execution site by a paramilitary group, the citizens of Puento Nayero eventually found the courage to force them out and declare their neighbourhood a Humanitarian Zone. With support from NGOs and a government programme, they are now striving to keep it safe.


Gina Natalia Garces, 12, Lesli Mayesi Viueros, 12, Ani Michel Duran, 11, and Eblin Yazury Valenua, 14, in Puente Nayero

Drinking, gambling and dancing in Puente Nayero

Potrero Grande  is already considered one of the most troubled areas of the country, with extreme poverty and unemployment leading to drugs abuse and deadly violence 

Jose Parra Zape, 47, was hit by eight bullets from a paramilitary group


Guerrilla Tatiaya Saens, 23,  holds her AK47

Sara Manuela, 2, sleeps in her house at El Diamante camp. Her parents had a child because they believe the peace process brings the prospect of returning to civilian life

Over, a FARC guerrilla, with his dog Killer in a UN-controlled area


All photographs by Mads Nissen/Panos Pictures