The jungle in Colombia's Chocó department is peppered with roving units of the country's biggest rebel group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
One of those units has an atypical fighter within it — a 42-year old French woman known as Natalie Mistral, her rebel name, who has been with the guerrillas for the last 15 years.
Mistral, who had never talked to the media before, said she can only think of one other European-born fighter within the FARC. That's the much better known Dutch member Tanja Nijmeijer, also known as Alexandra Nariño, who is a member of the team that has been negotiating peace with the government in Havana.
The interview took place earlier this month, before last week's announcement of a definitive ceasefire after four years of peace talks. What comes next is the signing of a final peace deal, probably before July is out, and then disarmament.
The FARC is the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America and has controlled entire regions in Colombia for decades. They have financed their half-century war with the government, and with right-wing government-backed paramilitaries, with the help of systematic extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.
Mistral — who answered questions sitting on a wooden bed with a pistol tucked inside her belt — did not directly address these issues, though she did agree to talk about other controversies surrounding the FARC such as the recruitment of children and forced abortions.
But the interview began with what drove her to become a rebel soldier back in 2001, when she was 27.
Mistral, who was born in the Mediterranean city of Montpellier, said much of the inspiration came from the international brigades who went to fight with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. She said she was also driven by guilt about Europe's role exploiting first Africa, and now Latin America. Joining the FARC, she said, "was payment for all the damage my ancestors did." It was also, she admitted, about adventure.
'I dreamt of living a revolution, and I searched for countries where it could actually happen'
"I dreamt of living a revolution and I searched for countries where it could actually happen. I was interested in Latin America, and I first turned to Mexico. I travelled to La Realidad, a Zapatista encampment in Chiapas. After spending some time with them I went to Colombia to look for the FARC. The idea wasn't necessarily to become a guerrilla. Rather I wanted to help. I wanted to contribute. It took about a year to find a contact."
Mistral said that a FARC commander eventually summoned her and other foreigners to a special meeting.
"The commander asked each of us how long we could stay there. Most people said three days, one week, or fifteen days at most. He was surprised when we answered a year and a half, but we told him that we wanted to learn and be a part of this and that we would not return to our countries because we wished to stay here in Colombia. Then he told us that we could stay."
Once they got the commander's approval, the new recruits began their induction into the group — what she called "a basic school for guerrillas."
"You study the origin of the FARC as a Marxist, Leninist, and Bolivarian organization. You learn what it is to be a communist and what it means to work underground. And on the military side of things you learn the theory behind shooting on target, marching, responding to orders, how to respond in combat, how to advance. Basically you learn the life of a soldier."
Mistral said that she decided that this was the life for her partly because she had always been "radical and adventurous," but also because she wanted to be true to her values.
"I can't stand not living according to my principles. I realized that the armed struggle is a truly necessary option. It wasn't an impulse. It's not like I just thought it up, or because I like war. It was just that repression left no other way," she said. "I expected there to be a bit of formality about the decision to stay, but what happened was that after about a year the comandante called me and told me that if I wanted to stay I could, and I said that I did want to."
As a new European recruit, Mistral said she began working as an organizer of international solidarity for the FARC. At the time she still had a French passport and would travel around the country and sometimes abroad. After a while, however, her passport expired and she felt it was too risky to try and renew it. For the last seven years she said she has not left Colombia.
For all the training, Mistral said she hasn't actually had a lot of experience on special combat missions, though she has been in unplanned operations, such as responding to army attacks and aerial bombardments. They have not involved death, she said, but they have been "impressive, very impressive."
The now veteran rebel also discussed the additional personal complications that came with being a member of the FARC.
'Having an abortion was an obligation. It was because of the daily combats and the need to keep moving'
"To 'marry' someone, all you have to do is get together with the person and tell the commander you want to live in the same place. Then we make a bigger bed and sleep together." But the pressures of war, she added, meant that having children was not so straightforward. "The FARC are at war, and in a mobile encampment environment you cannot have children. There are no proper conditions for pregnancy or raising kids. This is not a place for that. Colombians have big families and feel fulfilled when they have children, so not having them is a big sacrifice."
Mistral also appeared to confirm long-running allegations of forced abortions within the group.
"On the Eastern Block the war was particularly harsh over many years and the truth is that having an abortion was an obligation. Not one that simply popped into a commander's head. It was because of the daily combats and need to keep moving."
She claimed that when, in calmer times or on calmer fronts, rebels did choose to continue with pregnancies, they were sent into civilian life to give birth. She said they were then obliged to return to the rebel fold within two or three months, which also produced a "a lot of suffering."
Mistral was clear that she herself had "always been aware" that choosing to be a guerrilla fighter ruled out having children, though she now sometimes wishes for a baby. "When I got pregnant I immediately informed my superiors and organized everything to have an abortion," she said.
Mistral was similarly pragmatic when discussing the difficulties her family had coming to terms with her life choices.
"I come from a regular French working class family. I always shared with them what I thought and dreamed of, but they did not really understand it. They thought it was really extreme, but they came to terms with the idea. I tried to explain it to them and kept a sporadic relationship," she said. "My father was a pacifist, so he had a hard time understanding it. He understood about the solidarity and how I wanted to change the world, but he would question 'why the weapons?' I tried to explain the situation in Colombia, how it was not only a matter of weapons, and how it was the only way of fighting and surviving."
The French-born rebel also justified the FARC's recruitment of children in terms of local conditions in Colombia.
"The thing with children has been widely discussed lately because, in a sort of hypocritical way, Colombian society complains about us having children in our ranks, but on the other side, they do not worry about their well being," she said. "That's another reason why children join, because Colombia lacks the proper conditions they need to grow up."
'Children see no future for themselves and the FARC becomes a way out. It's really the not the worst option'
"A farmer, as most FARC members are, becomes a parent at 15 years of age if he is a male. Women can already have two kids at fifteen. Children see no future for themselves, and the FARC becomes a way out. It's really not the worst option, because they could end up in prostitution or the drug trade."
But now all this is winding down.
With the final peace accord now imminent, the FARC announced last May that it would be sending all combatants under 15 years old back to civilian life, as soon as a plan is developed defining how this should be done.
The looming end of the war also means life will never be the same again for Mistral and her unit in Chocó. The predominantly black population in the area relies on small scale agriculture, fishing, mining, and coca leaf farming to survive. The FARC's bastions are concentrated near the Atrato river. Colombia's second largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army or ELN, also has a presence. So do organized criminal groups.
The veteran rebel insisted that she has plans to stay on in the area, despite appeals from her family.
'Every time something is signed, my mother writes and asks me if I will return home'
"Every time something is signed, my mother writes and asks me if I will return home. I tell her that my life is now in Colombia, not France. I think I will stay here in Chocó for two or three years, because I think there are many things to build here," she said. "Now we can use all the time that we dedicated to fighting to other activities, like political education. We can learn what happens at the negotiations table, the state of political life in Colombia and what people out there think."
And while Mistral stressed that she knows it will be tough dealing with the victims of the conflict, in which all sides are accused of terrible atrocities, she underlined that she believes the rebels also have their fair share of forgiving to do too.
"We are victims of the government, and of the paramilitaries. I think that we have to forgive many things here in Colombia, and it won't happen fast. Our struggle is not personal, it is a fight for social change. We have no hate, because we know war has consequences. But we will do everything we can to acknowledge our mistakes, and ask for forgiveness if that's the case."
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