INTERVIEW | 6/8/2010 12:00:00 AM
“I knew Tanja would stay in the guerrilla forever”
Hannie Nijmeijer is the mother of Tanja, a Dutch woman fighting alongside the FARC. She spoke for the first time in an exclusive interview with SEMANA.
Hannie, a slim and shy woman, narrates her adventures while smoking a cigarette at a coffee shop in Groningen, in northern Holland. This spring Tanja has become again a media phenomenon in that country. A documentary and a book about her life (the latter written by León Valencia and Liduine Zumpolle) have recalled the pain her family had to experience three years ago when various newspapers published her diaries, found after a raid by the Colombian army on a guerrilla camp. Tanja appeared in the first page of tabloids and Hannie had to hide for several months. Now she speaks for the first time with Colombian press .
SEMANA: Before Tanja became a member of the guerrilla, what did you know about Colombia?
Hannie Nijmeijer: Nothing. It was distant country. My knowledge about Colombia was limited to its location on Earth.
SEMANA: What did you think 10 years ago when Tanja told you she was leaving to Colombia?
H.N.: I was surprised, but I respected her decision.
SEMANA: Why did Tanja leave Holland?
H.N.: When you see so much poverty for the first time, it is inevitable to ask yourself: Is there anything I can do to help these people? Perhaps Tanja initially thought she would be less useful if she stayed in Europe.
SEMANA: What leads a Dutch middle class girl to become part of the FARC?
H.N.: Her engrained social sense, but I don’t know why she ended up like that. We are Catholic and politically independent. We were very close. Even if it was two in the morning, I would go pick her up from any party. Some years ago, one of my other daughters told me that perhaps the only thing in which I failed as a mother was to teach them to be too aware of social issues.
SEMANA: After her first trip to Colombia, did something change in her?
H.N.: When she told me about her experience I noticed that something had touched her social fiber in a very profound way.
SEMANA: In 2005 you made a secret trip to a guerrilla camp to see your daughter. How did you get there?
H.N.: After several months of silence, Tanja told us that she had joined the guerrilla and invited us to visit her. My family discussed it, we didn’t want to put our other daughters in danger, and finally we decided that I would go alone. The convictions of a mother are unbending. It was very difficult for everyone.
SEMANA: Were you aware of the risks that this trip implied?
H.N.: Yes but if I hadn’t done the trip, I would have regretted for the rest of my life.
SEMANA: What did you feel?
H.N.: I remember that the paved road suddenly changed into a small unpaved road. At the end of the trip, I had to walk to a ranch where I spent seven nights. In the mornings, guerrilla members would take me to Tanja’s camp.
SEMANA: How was the reunion?
H.N.: It is a very intense and intimate memory, one which I will take to my grave.
SEMANA: How did you find your daughter?
H.N.: As always, except for one detail. When we talked about the FARC she was unavailable. Suddenly, it was like if there was a wall between us. That was new. There was only one exception: when I asked her about the taxes people have to pay to the guerrilla, I reminded her about the ethical values her grandfather had taught her. That was the only time she said, "You're right, that's not right."
SEMANA: Did you hope that wall would stop growing?
H.N.: Since 2005 I realized that Tanja would stay with the guerrilla. It was impossible that she would return with me. However, I believe that our relationship was always good.
SEMANA: Tanja is part of a group responsible for serious crimes against civilians. Did you speak about that?
H.N.: I tried, but I already told you about the wall that divides us. So I decided not to mention it more. I knew it was the last time I would see her, so I deleted those questions. I didn’t think they would help.
SEMANA: How was your farewell?
H.N.: Fast and frantic. Then it was difficult, especially when years later the media published her diaries and I was not able to see or talk to her anymore.
SEMANA: In 2007, this magazine wrote: "Tanja’s diary is a deception’s diary”. Do you see it this way too?
H.N.: It is disappointing. The FARC guerrilla are in the midst of a war against the Colombian state, one which started five decades ago. Many years of violence, and what has happened? What is left from this war? Just sadness and pain. Someone once said that this war does not belong to our times. I agree with that.
SEMANA: There’s a new book about Tanja. What did you feel when you read that the FARC almost executed her?
H.N.: I can’t stand it. With the help of Google’s translator I read the most important Colombian newspapers every day. I always fear I will find terrible news about Tanja.
SEMANA: Do you know that if Tanja is arrested, she will be judged by the Colombian justice?
H.N.: What do I get thinking about that? The only thing I ask myself is if Tanja is alive or not. That is how I try to get by.
SEMANA: What do you think about the FARC?
H.N.: It’s hard to judge because I’m not an expert. I am just a mother looking for her daughter.
SEMANA: Why did you avoid the media?
H.N.: We wanted to take care of our family. Also, we have had bad experiences. When the diaries were published, some newspapers and magazines included my husband’s opinion although he never conceded any interviews. Everybody talks about Tanja, but nobody is able to give new information. It’s just sensationalism.
SEMANA: With your silence, you also contributed to the lack of accuracy in the information.
H.N.: Yes, I know. That’s why I accepted to travel to Colombia in January and allowed the director of a documentary tape me when I sent the radio message to Tanja. That’s why I am here talking to you.
SEMANA: What do you remember from your last trip to Colombia?
H.N.: I went back to Meta, the same place where I had seen Tanja for the last time. There I asked her in Dutch to let me know if she was still alive. Also I went to Medellín and met the group “Madres de La Candelaria”, which brings together mothers of victims and murderers. I was very impressed. It was the first time I shared with others who felt the same way I did. Here in Holland my case is unique. Now I am a member of “Madres de La Candelaria”.
SEMANA: Did you feel different?
H.N.: I was very surprised when I saw these women with huge photos of their sons. They asked me why I didn’t carry a picture of my daughter. I told them that in Holland we are quiet and introverted. But the feelings are the same. Many of them were very poor. I was disappointed when I figured out that besides that horrible pain, they also had to deal with poverty. In that sense, I feel privileged.
SEMANA: Your daughter will probably read this interview. What would you like to say her?
H.N.: Let us know if you're alive. The Colombian Army says that Tanja lives, but there are is no evidence. I have not heard anything from her in the past three years. Sometimes that makes me think in the worst possible scenario. It's very hard to live this way.