Tearful reunions as Colombia rebels embrace peace

El Diamante (Colombia) (AFP) - Miriam Vanegas had not seen her son for 10 years after FARC rebels took him away into the Colombian wilderness. Now the fighters have signed a peace deal, and she has him back.

As the FARC -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- prepared to approve a historic peace deal signed on Monday, Miriam spotted Pablo Esteban in images filmed at a conference held by the force.

"He left when he was 13. They took him away," she said. "I searched heaven and earth for him until last week, when I saw him on television in the conference."

Dressed in a black dress with a blue and pink flower design, she can scarcely contain her tears as she recalls the reunion.

"I traveled six hours on a motorbike to get here," she said of her journey along a remote path through the heat and humidity to the FARC's base in El Diamante, western Colombia.

There, a female FARC member recognized the 10-year-old boy in the photo Miriam held in her hand. She led Miriam to a camp where she found him, transformed into a young man.

"I hugged him and I cried," she said, her voice trembling. "You do not know how happy I am."

- Second chance -

In this remote base in the grassy plains, hundreds of FARC fighters gathered on Monday to watch the signing ceremony on big screens.

They applauded when their leader Timoleon "Timochenko" Jimenez signed the accord and made a speech hailing the FARC's transition to politics.

The agreement formally ends a conflict Colombian authorities estimate has killed 260,000 people, left 45,000 missing and uprooted 6.9 million.

After watching the signing, FARC members mounted a stage, dressed all in white, and sang the FARC anthem and the "Ode to Joy."

"At last, we have a second chance on Earth," a top commander, Carlos Antonio Lozada, told the gathering.

- Peace and football -

FARC fighter David Preciado celebrated the signing by playing football with his comrades in the camp.

He ran around on a mud pitch with bamboo goalposts, getting dirty, happy as a child.

He lost his left arm after he was shot in an ambush by the army. That slowed him down a bit on the pitch -- as did the lack of practice.

Normally "we are not allowed to play for reasons of public order," he said.

Now in his thirties, David says he joined the FARC when he was 19 because he liked guns.

He had not played football for a decade -- the last time was when the rebels and the government last tried, unsuccessfully, to make peace, from 1999-2002.

"Playing football is one of the ways of celebrating the triumph we have achieved," he said.

"The government did not defeat us, and we did not defeat them. Our 52 years of war were not in vain," he added.

"We are aware that we have to move forward together, united... to finally achieve victory, giving power to the people by political means."

- Resistance -

The FARC's 7,000 fighters must come out of their jungle camps and disarm.

The peace deal grants an amnesty for "political crimes" committed during the conflict, but not for the worst atrocities, such as massacres, torture and rape.

Colombians will vote in a referendum on October 2 on whether to ratify the peace accord.

Two polls published Monday indicated the "Yes" vote would win by a strong margin of around 20 percent, with about 35 percent of voters against the deal.

Some Colombians resent the concessions made to the FARC in the accord.

"The Americans would not grant impunity to Osama Bin Laden," former president Alvaro Uribe said.

"Why should we Colombians grant total impunity to terrorists?"

- 'We are human' -

Ahead of the FARC conference last week during which it approved the peace accord, members welcomed journalists and other outside visitors to their camp.

They spruced it up for the occasion with special huts and bathroom facilities. They played football with visitors.

"We want to show people that we are not the monsters they say we are," said one 32-year old FARC fighter, who identified herself as Patricia.

"We are human beings."

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