Rebel lives matter. Why we need more research on the everyday lives of rebels.

José A. Gutiérrez D.

[This paper is based on ‘Eating, Shitting and Shooting: A Scatological and Culinary Approximation to the Daily Lives of Rebels’, published (online) in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.]

Over the last two decades, there has been a proliferation of research in the area of conflict. While a wide range of topics have been covered, one conspicuous gap remains within the literature on the everyday lives of rebels. This gap is puzzling since the last decades have also seen increased interest in researching the “everyday” within all areas of social sciences, but particularly in areas such as nationalism and State-building, which are closely related to conflict studies. This is curious, because there appears to be a serious inability to grasp the humanity of actors in conflict, and of rebels in particular. In conflict studies, researchers tend to investigate them with as muchand often far lessempathy as entomologists would study bugs: “cockroaches behave in this way under these circumstances”, “slugs exhibit peculiar behaviour under strained conditions”, and so on and so forth. 

However, we social scientists are not entomologists observing bugs. We research sentient, emotional, affective, moral, social, rational beings. I want to emphasise that I refer to ‘rational’ here in the broad sense of the word; as beings capable of using reason and complex thought patterns. Unfortunately, rationality has been often reduced in social sciences to a crude and narrow caricature, equated with the maximiser, selfish, egoist “rational agent”. Conflict studies seem to be one of the last strongholds where the rational agent or homo economicus still enjoys popularity and good health, having faced decades of sustained critique in other areas of knowledge. I think, from an epistemological point of view, this is one very important reason (together with the toxic political climate inaugurated with the so-called War on Terror and practical difficulties of ethnographic research in conflict) why there has been a problem within conflict studies to embrace the shift towards “the everyday” that we see in other disciplines of social sciences. Understanding the daily lives of rebels requires us to understand their humanity and all those other dimensions that relativise the predominant paradigm which reduces them to mere predators.

Yet, rebel lives matter. I want to proclaim this loud and clear. They matter, naturally, as the lives of any other human being matter, from a political, moral and philosophical perspective. This is important to remember in an era where we have naturalised, internalised and normalised the proliferation of drones, summary executions, torture (watered down as inhumane and degrading treatment), throwing bodies into the sea in the style of the 1970s dictatorships, and mass bombardment. This in itself is enough reason to take rebels’ lives seriously. But they also matter because the exploration of these day-to-day dynamics can help reflect and highlight important dynamics behind conflict. These can be valuable contributions to exploring conflict with an eye to understand ways to overcome it, to create a ground for ‘civilised’ dialogue, and, if we are bold enough, to engage in creative and transformative peace-building.  

I started considering this gap during my ethnographic work in Colombia. Between 2014 and 2018 I spent a significant amount of time in areas of conflict, engaged in participant observation and conducting research among communities in areas of control and/or influence of the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, People’s Army (FARC-EP). My experience revealed a whole set of daily interactions between rebels, communities and authorities that problematised a number of assumptions and conclusions of the ‘rebel governance’ literature. But together with this wealth of data on institution-building, State-making and social interactions in conflict settings, the very nature of ethnographic work made me aware of the relevance of everyday activities for understanding ideological commitments, gender dynamics and other important aspects that constitute the social and moral universe inhabited by the rebels.

So, I started looking at two cherished daily activities which are part of the routine of all humans, but which have been completely overlooked in conflict studies. I am referring to eating and defecating practices. We all eat, and we all defecate; these are biological functions that are vital in order to be viable beings. However, although everyone does these activities regularly, we all do them differently depending on culture, ideology and character. As Lévi-Strauss mentioned in his famous study on kinship structures, all cultures forbid incest; however, incest means different things to different people. At the intersection of nature (what everybody does) and culture (but we all do it differently), we can gain important insights about the big structures organising and regulating our human existence.

A guerrilla preparing a pork roast during the demobilization process in Putumayo. Picture: José Gutiérrez

What did I discover by examining these practices among FARC-EP rebels? Meals structured a routine, while at the same time, fostered micro-solidarity and cohesion within ranks. It was through the communal cooking and dining that the FARC-EP became a veritable family to many combatants removed from their primordial social relationships. Important ideological commitments of the rebels, such as gender equality and collectivism, were at once reflected and reinforced through meals and defecation practices. Both men and women shared cooking responsibilities equally within the guerrilla units; they also bathed and defecated together. Generally speaking, both the rank-and-file and commanders shared the same defecation facilities and food, reinforcing the esprit de corps among the rebels and their collectivist ethos. The defecating infrastructure and the foods in the camps also reflected the peasant identity of this rebel organisation, posing a challenge to the few urbanites that ever joined them, but also forcing their integration. As a matter of fact, once the demobilisation process started in 2017, one of the first things former combatants pointed to as a sign of the cracks in the collectivist spirit and the egalitarian ethos of the FARC-EP was the fact that commanders got their own toilets in the demobilisation camps. And they deeply resented this. 

In most conflict settings, actual fighting is exceptional; eating and defecating are not. We can learn far more about the actual commitments of rebels from the close inspection of such daily activities rather than from an analysis of fighting patterns. A day-to-day turn in conflict studies would help us to do two things at once: to re-humanise the field of research (and our own interactions with communities, participants, etc.), and also to do better science. We cannot overstate this: rebels’ lives matter and we should be paying closer attention to them. We may learn a thing or two.

Profile pictureDr José Antonio Gutiérrez is a Research Fellow affiliated with the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction. He has extensive experience working on conflict, illicit economies, and contentious politics in Colombia, and has carried qualitative projects in Kenya and Indonesia as well.

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