It took a village to save their children

With tears in her eyes but the slightest of smiles on her lips, Celmira recalls how her husband gave his life earlier this month to save his two oldest sons from Colombia's war.

"Miguel Angel was a good man who worked hard and taught his children to work," she says, sitting on a low stool in a neighbor's smoky bamboo-and-corrugated-tin kitchen. "He died defending his idea of his family and, well, of life," she adds, knitting her fingers together.

"He believed you shouldn't kill, and he refused to see his sons taken away by violent people only to be taught to kill."

Celmira and Miguel Angel (last names withheld at her request) are part of the story of Ortega, a poor Colombian mountain community that mustered the courage to defy armed guerrillas who came to take their children, to forcibly recruit them as soldiers in this country's 40-year-old civil war.

But Ortega's stand was a bittersweet victory: 10 villagers were killed - some like

Miguel Angel ordered from their simple homes and executed in front of family - and 37 of 70 houses were torched.

Still, the simple farmers who live here say they will take the same stand and face the consequences if, as promised, the guerrillas return. "You don't want to see your child end up a delinquent, a killer, or dead himself," says Rafael, the father of three children, including a 10-year-old son now old enough to be recruited by the guerrillas.

For four decades Marxist guerrillas have been fighting Colombia's government, for much of that time in marginalized rural areas. While other insurgencies in Latin America died out with the cold war, Colombia's only intensified as the guerrilla organizations built up income as associates of Colombia's cocaine traffickers. The right-wing paramilitary groups also have entered the fray over the past decade.

On a recent morning, as Rafael recounts the harrowing events of Oct. 7, the sounds of a battle raging a few ridges away between the Colombian Army and members of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) can be heard. These are the same FARC guerrillas, who, villagers say, promised to return to finish the job.

"We don't want our children to live a life apart from the law of the nation," Rafael says.

As a parent, Rafael's conviction and willingness to risk his life for his children is not unique, either in Colombia or elsewhere in the world where children are used to fight adults' battles. Mothers and fathers in Colombia's battle-torn rural areas have long complained of the forced recruitment by leftist guerrilla organizations and paramilitary groups (The Colombian Army has committed to recruiting no one under 18). And in the 1980s, thousands of Central American women fled north to the United States, as part of what was called the Sanctuary movement, often with young sons they wanted to save from having to fight in the wars then ravaging El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

What makes Ortega stand out is that a whole town stood to defend its children. "It wasn't anything organized; we didn't meet and make a community decision," says Rafael. "I suppose it's just that many of the families are related, and so people tend to think alike."

Ortega's ordeal began Sept. 14, when the FARC's Jacobo Arenas division passed through the isolated and rugged terrain some 20 miles west of the town of Cajibi. The guerrillas didn't stay long. Just long enough to confiscate provisions from Ortega's three sparsely supplied stores - crackers, soft drinks, rice - and collect some chickens and clothing from the houses they passed.

But they left something, too: A promise to return to recruit boys and girls into their ranks. Supplying the FARC with soldiers would be the community's way to prove it was not, as the guerrillas said, harboring paramilitary soldiers. To show they meant business, guerrillas killed three villagers, including Rafael's 80-year-old father.

"They accused my poor father of being a paraco [paramilitary] and hanged him from a tree," says Noris, Rafael's sister. "But I think they did it to scare families into giving up their children."

The FARC's visit on Sept. 14 brought back bad memories. Two young men were taken from the village 20 years ago by guerrillas and never seen again, Noris says. "Our lives had been peaceful since then, but children being taken from you is something you don't forget."

Although the people of Ortega feared the FARC would return, there was little they could do but wait. As September turned to October, the town was without any government official to turn to for help. Even Cajibi, the nearest town, has been without police since June when the mayor was killed and the FARC attacked the police station with gas bombs. The three teachers for the community's two schools were away on vacation. The health clinic only opens occasionally, and even the Catholic priest only comes once every three months, residents say.

There are no telephones, and the three-hour walk to the Cauca River outpost of Dinde for Sunday market day is the farthest most Ortegans regularly venture from their fields.

On Saturday evening, Oct. 7, word spread that the FARC had returned. They were ordering families to appear with children for recruitment at the basketball court in Ortega's center the next morning. That's when the families on the surrounding ridges swung into action.

"They wanted children from 10 to 16, so families sent children around those ages to hide up in the woods," says Rafael, who took his son, William, and others up the mountain valley to the few patches of tropical forest that remain.

Although it is unclear if the FARC unit actually specified the age-range of children it sought to recruit, parents say radio reports and the young faces of many of the soldiers making up the unit convinced them that children were being taken. Casualties and guerrillas taken prisoner have also provided evidence that the FARC violates its own commitment to recruit only adolescents 15 and older.

When families from surrounding ridges failed to appear at the recruitment meeting on Oct. 8, guerrillas began sweeping through the houses. "Miguel Angel had sent our 20- and 14-year-old sons to hide, but he stayed here to protect us," Celmira says, referring to her 10 other children. "The FARC knew we had older boys and demanded we give them up, but when Miguel Angel refused, they killed him and burned our house."

By this time, Noris, who had stayed behind with her sick mother, had nine small children in her house, children of mothers and fathers who had fled with the older children to hide.

"When they got to my house, it was a young girl and a young boy who came in, the girl had a gas can in one hand and ordered us to get out," recalls Noris. "I told her I would not take the children out, and she would have to burn us with the house. I asked the young man if he didn't have a mommy and a daddy, if for the love of God he hadn't the heart to spare these babies," she says. "He got tears in his eyes and ordered the girl to follow him out, and they left."

Today, Noris's house is the only one on the ridge left standing. It serves as soup kitchen and comfort center for the homeless. Noris, an evangelical Christian like the rest of her family and neighbors on this ridge, says God spoke to the guerrilla boy and told him to stop the girl from torching her house.

Two plots down the hill, Rafael stands with his 10-year-old son, William, looking over what was once their house. Piles of charred bamboo poles and bedframes are kept to one side, blackened corrugated metal that can be salvaged for reconstruction to another.

A wind comes up and the onion skin scraps of a Bible, outlined by the brown of fire, flutter through the air like butterflies.

Away across the mountains the whir of the helicopter is suddenly joined by the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun fire, and William hugs his father close and looks up at him.

"The children are traumatized by what happened, and they heard as well as we did the promise to come back and finish what was started," he says, rubbing a hand reassuringly through William's thick black hair.

"As a parent, you do what you can for them," he adds, "you do it before you think about your own life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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