Colombia: Stitching Together Freedom

Four demobilized rebels launch first collection of clothing for brand Chance at inauguration of Bogota fashion show.

Alvaro Perez had his last nightmare a couple of weeks ago. He dreamed guerrillas were after him for desertion. He woke up sweating, and couldn’t help smiling when he confirmed he was safe, with his family in a house in the south of Bogota.

And although Jorge Garcia hasn’t had frightening dreams since he left the paramilitary six years ago, he still looks nervous. He flees cameras and confesses it is difficult not to fear rejection for having carried a gun, having shot, having killed.

“I didn’t know those who entered the [rightwing paramilitary group]AUC couldn’t get out again.”

By contrast with these two, Oscar Rodriguez looks calm despite being the only person in his family who has broken ties with the [leftist rebel]FARC. After being captured, he decided to start a new life.

“I was practically born amidst weapons.”

His uncles, grandfathers, father, brothers-all of them have been involved in some way with the guerrillas. In fact, Oscar entered the ranks when he was a child, and for nearly two decades fought with the 21st Front. Like Oscar, Ciro Gomez looks serene. Since putting down his guns, he’s been able to have stable work, and that has been his greatest blessing.

“If you’re busy, it’s okay. There’s no time to think, to remember.”

Sometimes Jorge Garcia does think. He remembers when his community asked him to talk to the paramilitaries, to ask them to stop killing indigenous people. He remembers how he finally accepted the uniform and the rifle to protect his people, how he didn’t get out until many years later, how he lost almost forever what is most important to an indigenous person: freedom.

“Being ordered around by others is terrible. We are like birds that fly freely.”

After long stints of combat, these four men have finally returned to civilian life and met up with their families again. They have ended up as the lead characters in an initiative by the Defense Ministry, with help from Colombia’s Agency for Reinsertion, that looks to make it possible for demobilized rebels to rejoin society and start productive lives within the confines of the law.

The idea materialized with ease after discovering the talents of Alvaro, who is an extraordinary tailor. And Oscar was raised as a cobbler, a profession his family practiced in addition to collaborating with the FARC. Ciro is agile in making bags and purses and Jorge, like many from his community, is an expert in making necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

Their abilities alone weren’t enough to achieve their ambitious goal of making a clothing, footwear, bag and jewelry line that would be presented at Bogota’s Circulo de la Moda fashion show, so they appealed to designer Sandra Cabrales for help. Sandra’s introduction to the idea came through a workshop she was asked to give to young women in Cartagena de Chaira, Caqueta, where young people are vulnerable to end up in illegal, armed groups. The workshop was a success and it made an impact on Sandra, not just because of what she saw, but because of the possibility to help with the peace process.

And that is how it worked out. For the past couple of months, she’s been running from one end of the city to the other. Besides keeping her shop windows stocked with her creations, she turned into a consultant for Jorge, Alvaro, Oscar and Ciro. First, she did various workshops to awake their creativity, “to push them to let go, to create something that would break with their norms, something that would conquer a catwalk.”

She stayed with them through the creative process, correcting their sketches. She even went to their shop, all the way across the city from hers, to inspect and improve their work, and little by little the ‘Freedom’ collection took shape.

The men came up with the name. They say it symbolizes the possibility they have to create, to exist and to act without others imposing, without orders. The result is as gratifying for the four of them as it is for the woman who considers herself their teacher. There are 82 garments for men, women and children. They are all very casual, combining colors like red, green, orange, yellow and blue. In addition, they have a line of accessories that includes shoes, purses and bags, necklaces, earrings and bracelets inspired by figures found in nature.

“They have high expectations,” Sandra says, “They are very hopeful.”

May 9 is the big day. At six in the afternoon in Parque de la 93, weeks of effort will take shape on the catwalk at the inauguration of Bogota’s Circulo de la Moda. According to Jorge, the possibility to share their work with people will help calm their fears of rejection.

“In some way people will be able to understand that we belonged to something that should have never existed, that we were something we should not have been.”

In the words of Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, it’s about “a real option that will allow them a stable income”. Besides, adds Alejandro Eder Garces, the head of Colombia’s Agency for Reinsertion, “The collection and the brand Chance not only identifies the products but will help pass along information and stories about people who have put down their arms, who are in the process of reinserting themselves into society and who now design and sell their products”. For now, their garments and accessories will be sold from their website www.chancecolombia.org, but they hope someday to make it to shop windows.

Alvaro Perez

53 years old, from Planadas, Tolima.

Demobilized in October 2006.

Years in armed rebel group: 10.

Why he signed up: He needed money to support his family after his tailor shop went bankrupt several times.

Why he demobilized: He tired of life in the jungle and wanted to restart his life.

His dream: Consolidate his business and one day sell his garments in stores.

Oscar Rodriguez

29 years old, from Tolima.

Demobilized in May 2010.

Years in armed rebel group: 19.

Why he signed up: His entire family had always been linked to the guerrillas. He says he was practically raised among weapons.

Why he demobilized: He was captured and decided to take the opportunity to get a fresh start in life.

Ability: Shoe making.

His dream: Open his own store to sell his shoes.

Ciro Gomez

42 years old, from Cundinamarca.

Demobilized in October 2003.

Years in armed rebel group: 1 and a half.

Why he signed up: He had a problem with a neighbor who was a rebel and they forced him to join. ‘You join or you die,’ they told him.

Why he demobilized: The paramilitaries ‘disappeared’ his sister and his commander did nothing about it.

Ability: Design and make bags.

His dream: Have his own shop.

Jorge Garcia

38 years old, from Tierralta, Cordoba.

Demobilized in 2010.

Years in armed rebel group: 12.

Why he signed up: The paramilitaries were killing people in his community and he was sent him to talk to them. The paramilitaries didn’t let him return to his community.

Why he demobilized: He wanted to rejoin his family.

Ability: Making jewelry, working with his hands.

His dream: Live a quiet life.

Mariana Suarez Rueda