When war veterans are children

Colombian program helps former child soldiers reintegrate into civilian life.

At an age when most American girls are experimenting with lipstick, 11-year-old Gloria Martnez was learning how to make mortars in the jungles of Putumayo.

And then there's Fernando, who, at 16, left his poor mountain home to join Colombian rebels for the money and the adrenalin rush.

Angelitos, or little angels, is what their older brethren in arms dub them. In a skirmish, the young ones are often sent out first to draw the fire.

An estimated 6,000 children are fighting with either guerrilla groups or paramilitary forces in Colombia's decades-old civil conflict.

The full number of Colombian children affected by the war runs much higher. But it is the child soldiers who symbolize most emphatically the lost "right to childhood" that primarily rural Colombian children are facing.

Using children in warfare is nothing new - the word "infantry" derives from the French word "enfant," or "child." Still, the presence of children in conflicts in Central America in the 1980s and in Africa in the 1990s also demonstrate how widespread the practice still is.

But in Colombia, some important steps are now being taken that indicate a child's right to freedom from war is gaining recognition. In December the Colombian Army committed to accepting into its ranks no one under 18 years old. In response, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Colombia's largest guerrilla organization, announced it would no longer recruit anyone under 15.

The FARC also challenged the government (cynically, some say) to expand economic and educational opportunities for the country's poor children so they no longer see soldiering as a refuge.

But perhaps most significantly, the government this year has embarked on an effort to treat former child soldiers not as delinquents or criminals, but as children needing special help to succeed with reintegration into civilian life.

"These children have special needs that are very different from those of typical delinquents, so we want to create a program of reinsertion into productive life recognizing that," says Lina Gutirrez, who four months ago opened the government's first home and education center for former child warriors. "We want to treat them as the consequences and not the criminals of this conflict."

Ms. Gutirrez, assistant director of institutions in Colombia's Family Welfare Institute, says a first step is to offer the children a house and not a prison. "These are kids who learned warfare early on and are generally respectful of authority and very disciplined," she says. "But what many of them have never known is love, or what it means to educate through nurturing."

Gloria joins the guerrillas

In 1996, when she was 11, Gloria Martnez chose the FARC with great expectations. Her father was a supporter and occasional participant, so she was accustomed to seeing frequent FARC patrols in the guerrilla-controlled Putumayo region where she grew up. So, Gloria (not her real name) decided to join up.

"They treated me well, I had a routine, and I learned a lot about fighting," she says between chores at Family Welfare's first home for former children combatants, which this reporter was able to visit. (Authorities are so concerned about threats against the 19 children in the program that they asked that not even the city where the house is located be revealed). Quickly she was learning how to make mortars, and in 1997 she participated in her first battle - an attack on an Army base.

Gloria says she doesn't know how many government soldiers died in the attack. She does remember, however, the girl her commanders ordered her to execute.

"She came into our front wanting to join up, but suspicions were pretty strong that she was a spy," she says. "They held a court and found her guilty. They ordered me to lead her away and do it, shoot her, and at first I hesitated but then I did it," she adds, twirling a strand of dark hair in two slender fingers. "To [the guerrillas] it was a proof of my loyalty, but to me it didn't prove anything. I didn't feel anything."

Gloria says she doesn't picture that girl as her enemy any more. But it was not that experience that prompted her to desert the guerrillas in January. "I just got bored, and I started thinking about other things I wanted, like school."

But the judicial system makes it hard for teens like Gloria to put the life of a warrior behind them. Colombia still lacks the legislation to change the children's legal status and official treatment. Currently, juvenile deserters or those captured are considered criminals. "They go before a judge who determines how long they must remain under review in an institution. We want them to be assigned a family defender," says Gutirrez. She wants the emphasis put on education and not punishment.

But she recognizes that changing the law is an uphill fight. "Our society rejects these children," says Gutirrez. "They are seen as killers, and many of them have killed. But they aren't delinquents ... that's what we don't want them to become."

No one reason explains why so many children are fighting Colombia's war. Some are rounded up during guerrilla or paramilitary sweeps of villages as a kind of tribute families must pay. "They go to a house, ask to see the children, and take one or more," says Clara Marcela Barona, with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Bogot. Families can be threatened if they don't give up a child.

In southern Colombia's distension zone - where the government has pulled out the Army to allow peace talks with FARC to proceed there - school teachers report depopulated schools. This suggests the FARC may not be sticking by its public commitment not to recruit children under 15.

Others, drawn by the illusion of war's excitement and the need to belong, join up on their own. "When childhood and its social structure are wiped out by warfare, the fighting groups become something like what the Boy Scouts are for other children," says Augusto Ramrez-Ocampo, a former Colombian foreign minister now part of the country's peace commission.

Fernando leaves FARC

The inkling that he wanted something more than war in his life is what got Fernando Escudero out of the FARC and into the Family Welfare house.

"I went with the FARC because I was almost 16 and even then [in 1998] the Army didn't always take you at 16," says Fernando (not his real name), who is tall and large for his age. "I also thought there'd be money in it for my family," which was struggling with no regular income in the Antioquia region outside Medelln. Fernando says at first he thrived on the exhilaration of battle. "We always felt great when they said we were going out," he says.

But then he realized that the paramilitary fighters he was going up against were pretty much young Colombians like him, "they just got in on the other side."

He also decided he wanted to work with computers. He deserted, at first returning to his family. "But the word was around that the paramilitary [groups] were after me," so he turned himself into the Army - and ended up at the Family Welfare house. Now he's learning about peace - "It's something that comes from inside," he says - and he is taking a computer class.

Colombia is beginning to shift its view on child soldiers in the right direction, says Mr. Ramrez-Ocampo, who directed the UN's peace plan for Central America. But he says Colombia risks finding itself with thousands of child soldiers turned street criminals, as El Salvador did, if it doesn't do more now to prepare for children who with a peace accord would come out of the conflict. "When the Central American conflicts ended, there was still little thought given to the specific problem of child combatants," he says. "Now I think Colombia can do better."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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