Tailoring peace: Colombian ex-rebels turn to fashion

Lina VANEGAS
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A model shows off a kimono during a fashion show by former FARC combatants in Bogota

A model shows off a kimono during a fashion show by former FARC combatants in Bogota (AFP Photo/Juan BARRETO)

Bogota (AFP) - Once dressed to kill as they stalked the Colombian jungle, a group of young former FARC rebels have shed their camouflage fatigues, boots and guns to help ease their way back into society following a 2016 peace deal.

The ex-guerrillas held a fashion show in Bogota this week, with colorful outfits and overt messages of peace pressed into service in the battle for Colombian hearts and minds, as the peace deal frays at the edges.

"This fashion parade is aimed at showing the clothes we make, and to demonstrate to Colombia our commitment to peace," said former rebel Gonzalo Beltran, who has swapped his automatic rifle for a needle and thread.

The peace deal between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government of then-president Juan Manuel Santos has come under increasing strain since the election of Santos's conservative successor Ivan Duque.

Duque was elected last year on promises to renegotiate the peace accord on the grounds that it was too lenient toward ex-fighters guilty of serious crimes.

And last month, the man who negotiated and signed the deal on behalf of FARC, Ivan Marquez, announced he and dozens of followers were returning to arms.

The FARC hardliners accuse the government of betraying the accord and failing to deliver rural reform.

- 'We're complying' -

Entitled "Pazarela" -- a play on the Spanish word for peace, "paz", and catwalk, "pasarela" -- Wednesday night's fashion parade took place to the beat of electronic music.

A dozen models -- students and former combatants -- strutted in front of 200 spectators to show off the first fashion collection designed in one of the country's 26 rebel reintegration zones.

"We're complying" was scrawled on a banner carried by a young woman dressed in a yellow kimono. Other signs drove home the message: "Everyone for Peace", "Nothing for War" and "Fashion is a political act".

Designer Angela Maria Herrera worked with around 30 former fighters from Colombia's mountainous Icononzo area.

"Our clothes carry messages of peace. Some were made by ex-combatants, but tailored by victims of violence, so the message of reconciliation is intrinsic."

Former guerrilla Melina Reyes presented a flowered dress, carrying a sign calling on the government to fulfill its promises under the deal.

"These are the clothes we are making, men and women who are betting on peace, that left their rifles behind, who said 'no' to the war, and want to continue like this," she said.

- Jungle fashion -

The private Andean University of Bogota hosted the fashion event to mark the International Day of Peace on September 21.

Event organizer Leonardo Gonzalez said it underlined the young people around him "do not want to return to war."

The United Nations says although a "vast majority" of about 13,000 former FARC combatants and their civilian collaborators remain committed to peace, the return to arms of some factions -- and the thousands who never disarmed at all -- is undermining efforts to overcome more than half a century of conflict.

Reyes wants to turn the page and says fashion provides her with an opportunity to put into practice a talent acquired in the jungle.

"We altered the clothes we were given because they were standard sizes, too big for some of us, and too tight for others," another woman said.

"We also started the idea of fashion in the ranks of the guerrillas," she said, laughing.

"We were stylists, the tailors of the guerrilla movement."