Playpens and strollers rest on the bare dirt ground next to assault rifles

Playpens and strollers rest on the bare dirt ground next to assault rifles

LA CARMELITA, Colombia — Amid the makeshift tents and communal kitchens where Colombia’s largest rebel army is preparing to lay down its weapons, a new sound is emerging: the cries of babies.

Playpens and strollers rest on the bare dirt ground next to assault rifles. Young mothers change diapers while their guerrilla comrades carry wood planks across fields of mud. Fathers still dressed in fatigues shake rattles and lift their giggling infants playfully into the air.

For decades, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kept such strict control over its fighters’ reproductive rights that female guerrillas who became pregnant were forced to leave newborns with relatives or even abort.

The practice flew in the face of the rebels’ claim that by enrolling female warriors they were freeing women from traditional gender roles that restricted their choices, and it angered many in this devoutly Roman Catholic country.

But in the last year, as the FARC and government reached an agreement to end Latin America’s longest-running armed conflict, those stringent battlefield rules have loosened. The result is a veritable baby boom, which has struck a chord even among urban Colombians far removed from the conflict, a few of whom have mobilized to transport diapers and creams to the new mothers after seeing images of sweltering infants on cots in the rural encampments.

“It wasn’t seen as viable for us to have children, because why is someone going to have them when there are bullets flying around?” said Jerly Suarez, 29. She gave birth shortly before the FARC began its march to one of the 26 demobilization zones.

Among the 7,000 guerrillas gathered at the demobilization zones across the country, 114 women are pregnant and 77 babies have been born recently, according to the government. Dozens of other older children who had been left with relatives during the conflict have also arrived. That has injected a sense of optimism into camps where war-hardened rebels are beginning their transition to civilian life.

Many are referring to the babies as the “children of peace.”

“I think in some ways these children symbolize the hope of a country that needs peace and reconciliation,” said Carlos Antonio Lozada, a member of the FARC’s ruling secretariat who is awaiting a child of his own with a fellow combatant.

The exact number of forced abortions is unknown, though it is likely in the hundreds.

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