In Colombia, ex-guerrilla fighters walk the runway for peace

Colombian models strutted the runway on Monday in the capital Bogotá wearing clothes designed by former members of the guerrilla movement FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Some of the models were former fighters themselves, and carried signs with strident political messages: "Fashion is a political act", and "Not one more child should go to war".

The fashion show was called 'From War to PAZarela' - a play on the Spanish words for catwalk, 'pasarela', and peace, 'paz'. The event opened a fair celebrating peace and reconciliation, running until December 13 in Colombia’s Congress.

The ‘Fair for Peace and Reconciliation’ started on December 2 in Colombia’s Congress, and will run until December 13. Source: Reincorporación FARC, Twitter

It was organised by ECOMUN (Common Social Economies), an organisation launched by the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, a political party created as a successor to FARC after FARC struck a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016.

ECOMUN works to reintegrate former guerrilla fighters into society, providing grants for education and work training and fostering reconciliation between fighters and victims of the 52-year-long conflict.

“Fashion is political too”. Source: FARC, Twitter

One organisation that is a part of ECOMUN is the Weaving Peace Cooperative ['Cooperativa Tejiendo Paz'], which has worked with former fighters in Colombia’s mountainous Icononzo region. The Weaving Peace Cooperative has trained 14 former combatants in fashion and design, from sewing to business skills.

"They’ve swapped their weapons for sewing machines"Ángela María Herrera is a 25-year-old fashion designer and founder of fashion brand Manifiesta, which has been working with the Weaving Peace Cooperative since September 2018 by selling the clothes made by former fighters through Facebook and Instagram.

She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that the aim of the event was to put pressure on the Colombian Congress to make sure that the peace deal is enforced in its entirety.

The fighters are very capable. When they decided to reintegrate into society through sewing and making clothes, they learnt very quickly. It’s no secret that the fashion world is very competitive, so the challenge was actually more on that level: the business and aesthetic side. For over a year we’ve been selling clothes all over Colombia.

A model holds a sign reading, "Make fashion not war". Source: Manifiesta on Instagram

Manifiesta’s contribution to the project is analysing the market and knowing what trends will come up that season, what kind of prints or fabrics to use and how to sell them to the public.

The reactions of the former guerrillas [to the fashion show] were very positive. It’s not very common that a guerrilla would be interested in the world of fashion, but what’s important - more than the clothes - are the stories of each and every former combatant who has swapped weapons for sewing machines and is fighting to build a better country.

Models backstage. Photo: Lichbee Busan, @lchbee, Instagram

It’s important to show former guerrillas’ efforts in these kinds of projects since they put down arms, given that some parts of the current government and society in general are spreading a discourse of hate and polarising people against them. FARC has fulfilled its side of the deal and now the government has to do its bit.

Half of Manifiesta’s profits go back into the cooperative that trains the former FARC members, while the other half is reinvested in the brand. The company has gradually increased its earnings as it has become more well-known. Herrera hopes that the Colombian government under President Ivan Duque will offer more support to reintegration projects for former FARC members.

However the peace deal has been on a bumpy road since 2016. Former FARC members accuse the government of not upholding its end of the bargain, and in September 2019 ex-FARC commanders vowed to initiate a "new phase of armed struggle".