Colombia: a wannabe revolutionary?

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.

“She also speaks English, German and some French, so this has been useful for translating messages for commanders,” said Edwin Koopman, a Dutch journalist who has written about Nijmeijer.

Itching to get more involved in the war, Nijmeijer joined a FARC unit in the southern Colombian jungle in 2003. But by then the rebels were being hammered by an army offensive that would eventually lead to mass desertions and reduce the size of the FARC from 18,000 to about 8,000.

“She had great expectations that the FARC would seize power,” Zumpolle said. “But right when she joined, the guerrillas suffered some of their worst defeats.”

Nijmeijer, who chose the nom de guerre “Alexandra,” quickly grew disillusioned. She was rarely called upon for important missions and spent most of her time training, marching and standing guard.

In her diaries, which were found by army troops at an abandoned rebel camp following a June 2007 attack, she speaks of boredom, sexual promiscuity among the guerrillas and the cynicism and selfishness of her macho FARC commanders.

“How will it be when we take power?” she wrote in one entry. “With the wives of the commanders in Ferraris with breast implants, eating caviar?”

In another passage she wrote: “This might be worth it if one knew what we’re fighting for. But the truth is, I no longer believe in this.”

She also wonders if she’ll ever make it out of the jungle alive, noting: “One is more or less like a prisoner here.”

Indeed, joining the FARC is a life sentence. Desertion is punishable by death. But Nijmeijer became so homesick that the rebels allowed her mother to visit her at a rebel encampment in July 2005.

In a home video made by her mother, Nijmeijer wears camouflage fatigues, a field hat and lipstick. She smiles and offer greetings to her father and two sisters and insists everything is fine.

Zumpolle claims that rebel commanders were furious about Nijmeijer’s unflattering portrayal of the FARC and that some called for her execution.

“I keep bouncing back between two thoughts,” Hannie Nijmeijer says in "Closer to Tanja," a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Leo de Boer. “Either she’s alive or she’s not alive.”

According to Zumpolle, Nijmeijer was punished with hard labor, like digging trenches, but eventually worked her way back into the FARC’s good graces and is now part of the inner circle of Jorge Briceno, a top FARC commander known as Mono Jojoy.

Colombian authorities, meanwhile, claim that Nijmeijer participated in several fatal bombings in Bogota in 2002 and 2003.

Earlier this year, Zumpolle and de Boer traveled with Hannie Nijmeijer to southern Colombia where, over armed forces radio, she urged her daughter to desert.

Back in her home country, Koopman said, the Dutch guerrilla is widely viewed as naive. “The general opinion is that she was stupid to go there and put herself in a situation she can’t get out of,” he said.