Giving up guerrilla warfare for good grades in Colombia

Colombia's Peace and Reconciliation program provides psychological help, educational opportunities, and job aid to the thousands of fighters who once engaged in guerrilla warfare.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
(Right to left) Dany Noswis and Orbey Casta–eda are former paramilitaries who are now participating in the Peace and Reconciliation Program in Medellin, Colombia. They are both working towards their high school degrees and attend weekly training sessions in their barrio, La Moravia, in the center of Medellin.

The first year that Dany Noswis spent with right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia he was panicked and homesick. He was 19 when he left without telling his family, drawn by money.

In the next five years he spent as a paramilitary, he says, he saw enough killing and cruelty to haunt his dreams for decades to come. "So many people had nothing to do with this war," he says ruefully.

Five years ago, though, he was given a fresh start.

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When Colombia demobilized paramilitaries, beginning in 2003, scores of young men like Mr. Noswis headed home, many to the rough neighborhoods from which they fled or were initially recruited, and joined the Peace and Reconciliation program run by the city of Medellín.

"They are giving us the opportunity to be a real person in life," Noswis says during a weekly group session, this one on democracy. "Today I am a person who does not hurt anyone."

With 32,000 paramilitary fighters now demobilized, the program is considered key to bringing Colombia back to normalcy after years of civil strife. It provides psychological help, educational opportunities, and job assistance.

Some take two years to finish the program; others might take six. They receive stipends of $80 to $250 a month for participating. The effort is widely seen as a success, with only about 10 percent dropping out, getting arrested, or being killed.

On a recent day at a school run by the program, former paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas – who once killed each other without remorse – sit in class together, some preparing for college, others learning how to read and write.

Norwis, now married with two children, is trying to stay focused on his dream: to get through high school and eventually become a nurse's aid. But, nearing 30, he is only in ninth grade, and the temptation to fall back on his previous skill set for some quick money is never far away. His little brother, head of a neighborhood gang, was killed two years ago.

Noswis wants better. Will he stick with it? That depends. "Our job is to show them there are other opportunities," says Julia Avendaño, the psychologist who leads workshops in Noswis's neighborhood.

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