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Colombia: a wannabe revolutionary?

Why a Dutch language teacher joined Colombia’s largest guerrilla army.

Colombia FARC, guerrillas
A graffiti artist spray-paints the initials of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on a section of the former Berlin Wall in Berlin, July 29, 2009. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)

BOGOTA, Colombia — When Colombian rebels interrogated three U.S. hostages in 2003, an attractive European woman, with hip-hugging camouflage fatigues and an exposed belly-button, did the translating.

At first, she seemed like "a wannabe revolutionary" wrote former hostage Marc Gonsalves in a book published last year.

But Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch language teacher and the only European known to have joined Colombia’s largest guerrilla army, could have a cold-blooded side. When Gonsalves asked her what the rebels would do to the American prisoners in the event of a rescue attempt, Nijmeijer said: “We kill everybody.”

Nijmeijer’s membership in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, first became public three years ago when her diaries were discovered in the jungle.

Now, a book and a documentary released last month in the Netherlands have fleshed out Nijmeijer’s perplexing story and the heartbreaking efforts of her parents to bring her home.

“How is it that a girl from northern Europe opts to pursue social justice by taking up arms with one of the most cruel guerrilla movements in the world?” said Liduine Zumpolle, who works with demobilized guerrillas in Colombia and is co-author of the book "Tanja: a Dutch Woman in the FARC."

Nijmeijer isn’t the first foreigner to be seduced by dreams of revolution.

Starting in the 1960s, a steady trickle of leftists traveled to Latin America to join guerrilla groups. But most of these militias disarmed or were defeated and some of their foreign collaborators were killed or ended up behind bars. Last month, a judge in Lima granted parole to New Yorker Lori Berenson, who spent 14 years in prison for collaborating with Peruvian rebels.

However, very few outsiders joined the FARC, which is widely despised in Colombia due to the group’s involvement in drug trafficking and massive human rights abuses — like kidnapping thousands of civilians for ransom.

Nijmeijer, now 32, is one of the few exceptions.

She grew-up in a small Dutch town in a middle-class family. As a university student, she squatted in abandoned houses and hung out with campus radicals. She became intrigued with Mexico’s Zapatista rebels and was briefly jailed for protesting against paramilitary massacres in Colombia.

In 1999, she traveled to Colombia where she taught English, learned Spanish, and was appalled by the country’s yawning gaps between rich and poor.

"When you see, for the first time, so much poverty it's inevitable that you ask: 'What can I do to help these people,'" Tanja's mother, Hannie Nijmeijer, said in an interview with the Colombian news magazine Semana. "But I don't know why she ended up" joining the guerrillas.

Gradually, Nijmeijer became convinced that the FARC’s cause was just. In 2002, she joined the rebel group’s urban militias in Bogota where, according to army intelligence reports, Nijmeijer was involved in the bombings of public buses and a police station.