In Colombia, FARC 'nurses' want to trade arms for white coats

In Colombia, FARC 'nurses' want to trade arms for white coats

Colinas (Colombia) (AFP) - As a battlefield nurse for Colombia's FARC rebels, Johana Japon helped stitch up wounded fighters as bullets whizzed past her.

And now that the rebel army is demobilizing under a historic accord signed last year to end more than 50 years of war, Japon wants to study medicine, don the white garb of a bona fide nurse and tend to everyday patients.

Japon is among 500 rebel fighters assembled in Colinas, a town in southern Colombia, one of 26 designated spots for members of the rebel movement to gather, surrender their weapons to UN personnel and start the process of rejoining civilian life.

She is also among FARC members rushing to do the paperwork needed to apply for 500 scholarships Cuba is offering for ex-rebels to study medicine on the island.

Another, Mery Quintero, who spent 20 of her 47 years in the ranks of the FARC, says people like them have a new purpose in life.

"We worked as nurses, and that gives us the possibility to help rural people and people in general," said Quintero, who once studied bacteriology but had to leave school when her mother lost her job and could not afford to pay her tuition.

But like other applicants, Quintero says she may have a hard time getting one of the scholarships because she only got as far as grade school in her education.

The Colombian conflict erupted in 1964 when the FARC and the ELN -- a smaller rebel group that is now in peace negotiations with the government -- took up arms for rural land rights.

The violence drew in various rebel and paramilitary forces and drug gangs as well as state forces. The conflict left at least 260,000 people dead and displaced more than seven million, according to the authorities.

Mauricio Jaramillo, a FARC commander who schooled Japon in field medicine when she joined the guerrilla army, said the scholarships are a golden opportunity for rebels who served as doctors or nurses during the war.

But it is not just them, he added. "We have a lot of supporters who have children ... young people who want to study medicine," Jaramillo added.

Jaramillo -- a nom de guerre, as his real name is Jaime Parra -- is known as "The Doctor" because he actually is one.

He is also one of the architects of the FARC medical care network, which at its war-time peak in 2000 even boasted a 300-bed hospital in southern Colombia.

"Over the years we trained around 150 people to work as nurses," said Jaramillo. They specialized in lab work, surgery, treating trauma and other areas of medicine.

Japon, 35, recalls treating fighters with horrific wounds, like one who was shot in the gut and hip, which she said was practically blown away.

"Shards of bone kept piercing his small intestine. He was operated on three times. He ended up with his intestine sticking out of his body, and we had to douse it with water to keep it moist," Japon recalled.

Then the army came, the rebels had to flee and two days later that soldier died, she said.

These nurses have other memories haunting them, too -- performing abortions on female rebels so they could keep fighting.

"Even though for everyone in Colombia we were the worst of the worst, with all that we did we are leaving a mark that is different from what people imagined we were," said Quintero.

These days, as she waits to surrender her rifle as part of the peace process, Quintero is helping build a clinic in a village where some FARC fighters plan to settle and get on with their lives.