Tatiana Rodriguez –
The days and nights of persecution and nearly three years in prison in Venezuela are behind Guillermo Torres. Torres, better known by his alias “Julian Conrado,” or “the FARC singer”, finishes his performance inside a mall to the sound of applause, enjoying what he loves most in this world: “Singing for the people.”
Torres was born in 1954 in northern Bolivia, in the municipality of Turbaco, a 20-minute drive from the Caribbean and the magical city of Cartagena. He grew up in a modest family that was influenced by music and revolution.
After recording songs with various Colombian folk singers, Torres – then 29 – traded in a budding singing career to become a guerrilla fighter “after seeing first hand the atrocities the authorities were committing against the people.
“The transition hasn’t affected me because before I sang in the jungle, I sang in public,” laughed Conrado, a tall man with glasses, greying hair and a coastal accent who feels the necessity to interpret his own folk songs.
“That’s why when people say ‘the FARC singer’ it is not entirely true since I joined FARC with a reputation as a singer,” the veteran guerrilla fighter says.
Torres has seen talks between the FARC and the Colombian government close up, having spent four years at the negotiating table in Cuba.
Torres, whose verses often touch on his favourite subject — love — said living in the jungle had not been easy.
“Without a moral code you cannot be a guerrilla,” he said.
“To have dignity is to always think and act with greatness,” he explained while recalling the guerrilla years when his will “stayed strong thanks to the music.”
That sentiment remained true in Venezuela, where he was ultimately detained following an operation between Colombian and Venezuelan authorities.
President Juan Manuel Santos’ government ordered his exile after his capture in 2011. But, three years later, the evolving dialogue between the government and FARC saw the charges against him lessened to extortion. That allowed him to travel to Cuba to take part in a new fight for a peace deal.
Within FARC, Julian Conrado dedicated himself to employing culture as the principal tool for change in society. He chose Julian Conrado as his alias in honour of a doctor who was falsely accused of being a FARC member and subsequently killed.
“Culture became part of the guerrillas’ life and it became part of the nightly routine from 7 or 8 o’clock at night. We would gather in a tent to sing, to watch small works of theatre, to tell jokes and riddles,” Conrado recalled with an air of nostalgia in his voice.
“I miss the contact we used to have with nature. We lived among trees, rivers and streams, watching butterflies float by. Do you know what it’s like to be in a camp when a flock of parrots suddenly fly by- It’s a beautiful thing!” said Torres.
For those who criticise the peace accord struck between the government and the FARC in November, Conrado encourages them to take in the “transformative” feeling that has surrounded the process and search out the love in their hearts.
“Only love can turn war into peace,” said the guerrilla fighter who was also the right-hand man of FARC leader Luis Edgar Devia. Devia, alias ‘Raul Reyes,’ died during a bombing by Colombian forces near the border with Ecuador in 2008.
Conrado survived an incident which generated tension between the neighbouring countries after Colombian troops crossed the border.
With sadness, he recalled losing two guitars, “tireless friends and companions of the fight.”
Conrado now gives free concerts and participates in forums dedicated to the peace process, like the International Bogota Book Festival. The festival is dedicated to the peace process for a social conflict that “killed more people than an armed battle” in Colombia.
“Rural kids didn’t die from war but of hunger and thirst with the irony being they live on top of one of the richest areas of Colombia with its high level of coal,” he said.
The disarmament of more than 6,800 FARC members is expected on June 1. Reincorporating the group into social life is the next step to follow.
“If you are a guerrilla, you are a lover of peace,” Conrado said. — dpa