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COLOMBIA
From cradle to grave
Michael Easterbrook
10/2/2002
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For former child soldiers, it’s a long road back to a normal life.

The rebel army promised Carolina a life of adventure. Instead, the 15-year-old found herself putting in hours of mind-numbing sentry duty and marching long distances through the mountains.

"It was boring," said Carolina, who deserted the National Liberation Army (ELN), the smaller of Colombia’s two main guerrilla groups, nearly a year ago after 11 months. "And I missed my family."

Carolina — whose real name cannot be used for security reasons — is one of hundreds of former child soldiers in Colombia who are being reintroduced to civilian life through an internationally funded program run by the government.

Started in 1998, about 750 young soldiers have passed through the rehabilitation program after deserting the armed groups or being captured by state security forces. Organizers see it as a way to begin laying the foundations for peace in Colombia even though the nation’s 38-year conflict shows no signs of abating.

"The state wants to show it can solve the problems created by the armed groups," said Julián Aguirre, program director. "The work we’re doing now is helping to reconstruct the country."

The involvement of children in combat is not unique to Colombia. An estimated 300,000 children and adolescents under age 18 are fighting in armed conflicts throughout the world (LP, June 25, 2001). But the problem is particularly worrying here, where some 3,500 noncombatants are killed every year in violence that appears to be on the brink of escalating.

About 7,000 children are estimated to be fighting in Colombia’s two main leftist rebel armies and rival right-wing paramilitary forces. At least 70 percent of them are thought to be among the 17,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s largest leftist rebel army. The government once staffed its military offices with teenagers, but phased out the practice in 1999.

The armed groups recruit children from poor and often abusive families, promising them adventure and a chance to escape. While most join voluntarily, about 20 percent go against their will, according to a recent government study. After about four months, most begin looking for a way to desert, Aguirre said.

When the ELN recruited Carolina, who is now 17, she was living in Medellín with her mother and some of her seven siblings, with whom she argued constantly. "They said it would be cool," Carolina said, talking by phone from a shelter in Bogotá, the capital.

But life with the 5,000-strong ELN turned out to be even worse than living at home, she said. The rebels took her to the mountains of Antioquia province, where she lived with a 190-member unit whose chief task was abducting civilian hostages for ransom.

After a brief training session to learn how to handle an AK-47, Carolina spent most of her days keeping a lookout for paramilitary fighters and government soldiers and guarding the hostages to prevent them from escaping. The unit moved camp nearly every night, said Carolina, who finally surrendered to the army last November.

Most child soldiers end up trudging through dense forests, taking turns at guard duty or shuttling messages between isolated units. Although Carolina was never involved in combat, many aren’t so lucky. In November 2000, more than 27 children fighting for the FARC were killed when their column was surrounded by government forces high in the northern mountains and slowly decimated. Dozens of other children who either surrendered or were captured required immediate medical care to treat festering wounds and malnutrition. No one knows how many child soldiers in Colombia have been killed.

The rehabilitation program is funded by the Colombian government, which provides US$580,000 annually, and a $2.5-million grant from the US Agency for International Development. The International Migration Organization and Save the Children UK provide technical support, Aguirre said. He expects the new government of President Alvaro Uribe Vélez to continue supporting the program.

After deserting or being captured, the children receive two weeks of medical and psychological treatment at two centers in Bogotá. Many arrive after having lived for months on the verge of starvation and are suffering from battle injuries and psychological trauma.

"The violence they see isn’t easy to forget," said Nelson Ortiz, a psychologist with UNICEF in Colombia. "War is hard enough for adults, but imagine how it is for children, who don’t have the experience or the development to deal with what they’ve seen and done."

From the centers, each child is moved to one of 20 shelters around the country. Boys and girls, many of whom have children or are pregnant, live together. Children from rival armed groups also live together and seem to get along. In the shelters, an educator, a nutritionist, a psychologist and other staff members work intensively with the children. There are currently 300 children and adolescents in the program; the youngest is 12.

Organizers say one of the most difficult parts of rehabilitation is tracking down family members. Many parents simply aren’t interested in seeing their children again, while others fear that if they return, the family will be attacked by armed groups seeking revenge. Of the hundreds of children treated so far, only about half have been able to return home.

"It’s a delicate process," Aguirre said. "It’s not as easy as calling parents up and saying, ‘Hey, your child has appeared.’"

After six to eight months in the shelters, the children spend up to a year living in the homes of social workers or other people who are paid a small salary to care for the former combatants. Those who cannot go home live in state institutions until they turn 18.

One of the program’s success stories is an 18-year-old man who was recruited by the ELN when he was 15 and deserted less than two years later. He finished the rehabilitation program and is now studying psychology at a university in central Colombia.

Twice as many children have entered the program this year as last, an increase Aguirre attributes to the breakdown in peace talks in February (LP, March 11, 2002), which may have prompted the FARC to step up recruitment.

Carolina plans to study acting when she finishes the program. Because returning to Medellín would be too dangerous, her mother and several of the sisters with whom she once fought bitterly plan to move to Bogotá to be with her. "I miss them," Carolina said. "You have to put the past behind you."


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