Several hooded gunmen, brandishing machetes, drag a girl with her hands tied behind her back from her home. The audience is gripped.
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.
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.
“When they first arrive, I ask them what they want to do with their lives and who they want to be. They often answer: a drug trafficker, a soldier, or policeman. It’s usually someone with a gun and who has status using violence and guns,” said Guillermo Alvarez, an anthropologist who runs a jewellery-making class at the center. “But after several months, many have changed their ideas. Some now tell me they want to run their own businesses.”
In one room at the cozy youth center, a group of teenage girls and boys wearing glittering makeup and costumes dance to the drum beats of traditional Colombian music, salsa and hip hop.
Colorful murals and posters adorn the walls. One says: “We have a right to play. We don’t want to be part of the war.”
For these teenagers, the center has become a refuge from gang violence. On any given weekend, drug turf wars can claim the lives of up to five people, often young men, in Bogota’s deprived neighborhoods.
Dozens of gangs are believed to run protection rackets and drug-dealing on street corners, tapping into growing local demand for marijuana and crack cocaine.
Gang members prey on jobless teenagers and those looking to escape domestic violence and grinding poverty. They lure potential recruits into a criminal underworld based on false promises of earning a quick buck.
Rebel groups also target teenagers they hope to use as messengers and informants.
“The conflict is not just in the jungle but in urban areas too. Teenagers living here have a high risk of being recruited by both illegal armed groups and gangs. Often girls face the added risk of teenage pregnancy, prostitution, and sexual abuse,” said Duque.
Child recruitment across Colombia’s major cities has increased in recent years, with 18,000 children caught up in armed groups and criminal gangs across the country, according to a recent report by the ICBF.
Teenagers living in Bogota’s slum neighborhoods say there is constant pressure to join a gang.
“Gang members are at school, in the same class as you. They’re always coming up to you and offering you a job and drugs. They say, ‘You’ll have a great time in our gang. You won’t have to worry about money if you join us.’ They threaten your family and close friends if you don’t join,” said Luis Medina, a participant in the center’s free dance and theater workshops.
“But being here has given me the courage to say no to them and drugs, and make other plans for my life,” said the 17-year-old, who wants to become a musician.
For him, though, gang violence and drugs aren’t the biggest dangers teenagers face.
“The biggest threat we face living here is to lose our dreams and the hope of a better life,” Medina said.
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