BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Tanja Nijmeijer, 34, is a middle-class child of the Netherlands who for the past decade has been mixed up in a Latin American revolution as a jungle fighter, at least once narrowly escaping death in a military bombardment.
And though her current role in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is not exactly clear, Nijmeijer is drawing plenty of attention within the rebel delegation for peace talks that are set to begin Monday in Havana.
Colombian government officials privately grumble that Nijmeijer, the only known rebel fighter from outside Latin America, will be an unwelcome distraction at the talks on ending a half-century-old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Nijmeijer is expected to play some sort of a public relations role, putting an international face on a peasant-based movement with no fluent English speakers in its top ranks.
“They say I’m here because I’ve been in the FARC for 10 years, am a guerrilla and speak English. I can translate our documents. That’s useful,” the Dutch newspaper Trouw quoted her as saying in an interview published last weekend.
Her PR value to the insurgents was evident in a YouTube music video the FARC released early this month to mark her arrival in Cuba. In it, she raps with other rebels, then sings and strums guitar in a ballad honoring slain former FARC field marshal Jorge Briceno.
“She is going to be a very useful woman,” said Jorge Enrique Botero, an independent Colombian journalist who first met her in 2003, a year after she joined the Western Hemisphere’s oldest active insurgency. “She is physically very strong and is full of political conviction, which is reflected in each and every one of her words.”
A former Romance language major, she speaks German, French and Italian in addition to English, Spanish and her native Dutch, he says. She also has apparently plunged fully into some of the FARC’s more controversial activities: shaking down businesses, setting bombs and helping hold hostages.
Nijmeijer is wanted for arrest in Colombia on rebellion charges but that warrant was suspended during the peace talks at the government’s request, said Colombia’s chief prosecutor, Eduardo Montealegre.
The United States has not, however, lifted an arrest warrant that names her as a co-conspirator in the hostage-holding of three U.S. military contractors who were captive for five years until their 2008 rescue along with former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
Five months after the Americans’ single-engine surveillance plane crashed in rebel territory after a mechanical failure, Nijmeijer served as their translator when they were interviewed by Botero for a proof-of-life video.
Nijmeijer first visited Colombia in 2000 on a work-exchange program after writing her thesis on the FARC at the University of Groningen in her homeland. She taught English to well-heeled children at a private school in the western city of Pereira.
Nijmeijer’s politics also were shaped by her experience volunteering almost daily in a shantytown near Pereira.
“Colombia was the turning point,” a college friend who worked with Nijmeijer in Colombia told The Associated Press in 2007.
“She was so shocked by the gap between the rich and poor and was determined to do something about it,” added the friend, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to violate Nijmeijer’s family’s desire for privacy.
Nijmeijer joined the FARC, which the United States and European Union classify as a terrorist organization, in October 2002 and was assigned to an urban cell in Bogota. Soon after, according to Botero, who wrote a biography of Nijmeijer, she was soliciting “war taxes” from merchants in the capital.
When the owners of a sportswear company refused to pay, Nijmeijer and another rebel set off a bomb in their warehouse at night, he said.
Court documents obtained by the AP describe various crimes allegedly committed by Nijmeijer in Bogota: “the bombing of the Kennedy police station, arson attacks on the Transmilenio (public bus system)” and on two major supermarkets, Makro and Exito.
None of the documents speak of casualties — a fact she noted in the interview with Trouw, the Dutch newspaper.
“Nobody was killed or injured in the attack on a bus. Other attacks, on companies that refused to pay revolutionary taxes, always happened in the middle of the night. I am 100 percent sure that no civilians ever died.”
She also defended FARC kidnapping and extortion.
“People who don’t pay their taxes to the state go to jail. People who don’t pay our revolutionary tax go to our jail. That’s what they call kidnapping, though we’ve decided not to do it any longer.”
“As far as attacks are concerned: We’re an army,” she added. “We use weapons and those weapons kill.”
Nijmeijer first met celebrity in 2007 when Colombian soldiers found a diary, written in Dutch, in a rebel camp the military had bombed. The author was disillusioned, sarcastic.
“I am tired, tired of the FARC, tired of these people, tired of the communal life. Tired of never having anything for myself,” Nijmeijer wrote in the diary, which Colombia’s then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who is now its president, disseminated with delight.
Santos said the diary should discourage any thoughts abroad that the FARC’s struggle is heroic.
“In certain circles in Europe the romantic image persists that the rebels are like Robin Hood, or ‘Che’ Guervara, fighting against evil for the good of the poor,” Santos said. “Nijmeijer fell into that trap.”
She described the FARC’s commanders, all men, as materialistic and corrupt and complained about their strict discipline — no smoking, no phone calls, no romantic relationships without their consent.
People speculated that she’d be punished, perhaps even executed for insubordination.
Terrified, members of her immediate family traveled to Colombia to seek her out and try to talk her into leaving.
The next time she was heard from publicly was in 2010, when Botero released a video interview of her in a rebel camp in which she defiantly professes allegiance to the FARC.
“Just come and try to ‘free’ me and we’ll receive you here with AK (Kalashnikov rifles), with .50 (caliber machine guns), she says, dressed in olive green fatigues and cradling an assault rifle.
She was by then under the command of the top FARC commander Briceno, who would be killed in a September 2010 military bombardment that Nijmeijer survived.
Nijmeijer told Botero last year that she could hear Briceno yelling to his aide after the first few bombing runs to get his fighters out of the camp.
And then both were silenced.
Associated Press Writers Michael Corder in the Hague and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.
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