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Sandra, imprisoned guerrilla fighter: "being separated from my child is extremely hard"

19-10-2009 Feature

In Bogotá's Good Shepherd prison, dozens of women who had fought for one of Colombia's many armed groups struggle to maintain ties with their children. Sandra is one of them, and she is clinging to hope for her future, despite a long prison sentence.


©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-co-e-00606 
Bogotá. Sandra (pink shirt) at El Buen Pastor prison for women. A section of the prison is occupied by 75 women together with their babies and small children. 
  My name is Sandra. I am 30 years old and an inmate of the women’s prison “The Good Shepherd” in Bogotá, Colombia. A friend of mine outside this jail takes care of my eight-year-old daughter. My two-year-old son lives with me. In the mornings he goes to the prison’s kindergarten, and in the afternoons he plays with the other six toddlers in our courtyard. We are 75 inmates locked up at the high-security section called Patio 6.

I decided to take up arms when I was thirteen, at a time where there was a lot of violence coming from the paramilitaries of Urabá region. After they killed my brother-in-law and harassed my younger sister, I chose to join the FARC.

My family had to flee our land. My dream of studying medicine was shattered. When I joined the guerrilla, I got hands-on medical knowledge. I worked as a paramedic with indigenous and afro-descendant communities in Risaralda, in the Chocó region, in Caldas and in Quindío.

Eight years ago, while evacuating some wounded, I was wounded myself. My comrades sent me to the city to get medical treatment. A former colleague of mine recognized me and handed me over to the army. I was three months pregnant when they caught me. I ran the risk of losing my baby, and the prison in the city of Pereira where I was being held didn’t have the necessary funds to pay for the treatment that I needed. So I asked the Red Cross to help me. They urged the INPEC (National Institute for Penitentiaries and Prisons) to transfer me to Bogotá to get appropriate medical care, for which the Red Cross paid.

©ICRC/VII/Franco Pagetti/v-p-co-e-00615 
Bogotá. El Buen Pastor prison for women. 
  As for my family, they live on a farm in a rural area. For them it is very complicated to get to the Red Cross office in the nearest city in order to be granted free bus tickets to come and visit me here in Bogotá. There are days when I long to see my mother again; my mother will always remain my mother. The kids also melt my heart at times. Being separated from one’s child is hard, extremely hard. Although these walls have taught me to be strong during the past eight years, I am only wearing a mask: my inner self is weak.

Earlier, my daughter could visit me once a week. But since last February, the new regulations only allow the children to visit us in jail on the last Sunday of every month. In this prison we are over 1,200 inmates. Most of them have children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces and cousins. On every visiting day, there are long queues, all children are body-searched, and this causes delays for the families. Due to overcrowding, we can spend on average only around five hours a month with our kids.

My long sentence, more than anything else, is inhuman. I was put in jail at the age of 22. I will be a 35-year-old single mother of two when I leave this prison. In this country, for a woman of that age it is difficult to find a job.

I don’t want to abandon the medical sector, I want to study infant psychology. Well, the lack of financial resources is holding me back, but I believe in miracles (laughs)… Where there is desire, there is willingness, and when there is a will, then your wishes may come true.