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Arts center helps youths in Bogota shun guns, drugs

An arts center, run by a Colombian non-governmental organization, works with former child soldiers – leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries – to help them return to civilian life.

By Anastasia MoloneyAlertNet / August 20, 2012

Former child soldiers dance at a youth community center in Usme, a deprived neighborhood in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

AlertNet/Anastasia Moloney

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BOGOTA, Colombia

Several hooded gunmen, brandishing machetes, drag a girl with her hands tied behind her back from her home. The audience is gripped.

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Performed by a youth theater group, the play and its teenage spectators are different from most. All are former child soldiers.

Some have witnessed violent scenes like this, common in Colombia’s nearly 50-year-old conflict. Others have perpetrated them as ex-members of illegal armed groups, many with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The theater project is one of several activities on offer at a youth community center in Usme, a deprived hillside neighborhood on the southeastern fringes of the Colombian capital Bogota.

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Over the past 16 years, the center, run by a Colombian non-governmental organization, Taller de Vida, has worked with scores of former child soldiers from both sides of the war - leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries - to help them return to civilian life.

For Camilo Torres, who served six years in FARC ranks, the center is a lifeline and a place where he can find solace through art.

He deserted the rebel group two years ago, and has since exchanged his AK-47 rifle for a paint brush. Instead of digging trenches, fighting government troops, and trekking through mountainous jungle terrain, he now enjoys weekly theater, dance, and art classes.

“We leave behind the war almost blind. We have few skills when we come out. But when I’m here I can forget about my problems. I’ve made friends. It’s like a family. And I like painting - it makes me feel good,” said Torres, proudly pointing to an oil painting of his on the wall depicting gunmen killing villagers.

At the center, former child soldiers and community youth leaders also work with 55 local teenagers and their families to keep them away from armed groups and local drug gangs.

“The demobilized combatants can debunk myths about what it’s really like in an armed group and tell young people about the reality - that being in an armed group is not a great adventure,” said Stella Duque, who runs the youth center.

Torres, 19, says the advice he gives to his peers makes him feel useful. “I tell them having your freedom is the most important thing you have. They [the FARC] take that away from you,” he said. 

Since 1999, the Colombian government’s child welfare agency (ICBF) has looked after nearly 5,000 child combatants who have given up their weapons. The government estimates that child soldiers make up over a quarter of the 8,000-strong FARC rebel group, many of whom were forcibly recruited.

Barely literate and traumatized by war, former child soldiers often struggle to overcome their past and adapt to civilian life.

“They arrive here feeling angry, apathetic, confused, and disorientated. Many feel guilty about what they’ve done. Some have been forced to do awful things. They tell me: I don’t want to be bad anymore,” Duque said.  

“When they turn 18, they’re told, ‘OK, you’re ready to go out into the world’. But they have no idea how to manage money, write a CV, and get a job," she said.

The center offers group and individual counselling to help heal trauma. Part of that involves showing ex-child soldiers there are other role models to follow.

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