Young and idealistic, Natalie left her native France to join the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, because she dreamed of a better world.
Colombian Peace Process
Tanja, her Dutch comrade in arms, landed in the Marxist guerrilla army by an accident of fate. But today, after 13 years at war, the two expatriate rebels want the same thing: peace in Colombia.
"I came to build something, not be part of a war," said Natalie Mistral—her nom de guerre—a blond-haired, blue-eyed Frenchwoman who joined the FARC in 2003.
"I like that phrase," agreed Tanja Nijmeijer—whose alias in the FARC is Alexandra Narino—a Dutchwoman who found herself swept up in the leftist rebellion the same year.
Both women are participating this week in a national meeting of the FARC deep in their stronghold in southeast Colombia. Here, the rebels will vote on a historic peace deal that aims to end the country's 52-year war.
As Colombia seeks to turn the page on half a century of violence fueled by poverty and drug trafficking, Natalie and Tanja say they want to work for peace in their adopted home.
"This is the moment when you have all the possibilities to build something, to offer something, to create something. That's the most beautiful part," said Natalie.
Sitting in a plastic chair at the edge of a remote field in the region of El Caguan, where the FARC is holding its conference, Natalie, 43, told AFP the story of how she came to Colombia to join the guerrillas.
It was, she said, "an exercise in political analysis."
"The idea was to contribute to the struggle of a people who had a chance to change their political structure and their reality," said the former social worker, who worked in Montpellier for France's largest labor union in her previous civilian life.
"It was an exercise in internationalism. It's not separate from the struggle for my own country," she said, speaking Spanish.
The FARC took her in and put her to work on logistics and coordination for their 57th Front in the impoverished department of Choco—"a huge change," she said.
She has never seen combat, she hastened to clarify.
"My motivation wasn't to be a guerrilla. I didn't want to grab a rifle. I wanted to help," she said, smiling and dressed in civilian clothes—a blue blouse, brown leggings, hiking boots for the rough terrain.
Sitting beside her, Tanja, 38, recounted how her own winding path led her to the same place.
She came to Colombia on a university exchange program in 2000, stayed on when it ended and wound up in the FARC three years later.
"Life brought me to the mountains," she said.
A passionate linguist, she gave up speaking her native Dutch, which she did not use for the 10 years she spent hiding out with her comrades in the jungle, she said.
She was named to the FARC's negotiating team after peace talks opened in 2012 in Cuba, where she handled the group's international media relations.
She told AFP she felt immense "expectation" and "relief" for Colombia when the peace accord was finally concluded last month.
Now, "we're in that brief moment of transition toward a new Colombia," said Tanja, a slender brunette dressed in olive-green cargo pants and a sleeveless blouse with diagonal stripes in earthy tones.
Under the peace deal—which will be signed Monday, then put to a referendum on October 2—the FARC have pledged to disarm and relaunch as a political party.
Tanja said it will be "interesting" to see how the new party does in upcoming elections. But she herself has "no ambition for politics," she said.
"My plan is to keep contributing to the struggles of people around the world," she said.
"If I can do that by teaching English classes in (rural Colombia), for example, then I'll go there happily."