CALI, Colombia — As Colombia heads into the June 15 run-off election that will determine its next president, the fate of the thousands of child soldiers in illegal combatant groups across the country is unclear.
Much of the presidential campaign has centered around current negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — a domestic armed militant group known as FARC.
The incumbent President Juan Manuel Santos, has led an 18-month negotiation with FARC and has reached agreement on significant areas of conflict. His political challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, a former finance minister, has staked his campaign in opposition to the negotiations with the slogan “peace without impunity” — charging Santos as weak on terrorism.
Regardless of the outcome, what needs to be central in a subsequent government going forward is a commitment to the rescue and re-integration of the thousands of child soldiers that have been pressed into combat by illegal militant groups on both sides.
Colombia and FARC have been engaged in a 50-year-old battle. FARC, which originated in 1964 as a Marxist movement supporting landless peasants, has evolved over the years into becoming the center of powerful Colombian drug cartels.
The on-going war has taken a deep toll on the country. Over five million people have been displaced and over 220,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict. Rule of law and civil society have been seriously degraded in many parts of the country. The Colombian military, trained and heavily funded by the United States government, has been continually battling the rebel groups.
Shadowy paramilitary groups, funded by large wealthy Colombian landowners who see FARC as a direct threat to their large landholdings and wealth, have also been fighting rebel groups.
Although no official data have been collected, the government estimates that up to 20 percent of these groups are children under the age of 18, many of them recruited between the ages of 12 and 15. The Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF) states that about a third of the child soldiers in Colombia are girls.
FARC has been particularly sophisticated in its recruitment of child soldiers.
Their base of operations is in poor rural areas, and their combatants have an open presence in villages throughout many parts of the country. They mingle in village centers and around schools, preaching a philosophy of peasant rights and re-distribution of wealth. Their camouflage uniforms and array of guns and rifles present a seductive image of strength to poor youth.
ICBF reports that 80 percent of child soldiers voluntarily join armed groups. With limited education and opportunities, children are drawn by the sense of power, status and camaraderie they see in these combatants.
They see a way out of their village and extreme poverty.
Many young girls are seduced by guerrilla combatants, and made to believe that they will have a special position and protector. In fact, there are FARC combatants who are designated as “seducers” who seek out girls in and around schools.
Many also join out of a sense of fear and pressure they feel by soldiers in their midst.
Once in combatant groups, children are treated as adults. They are trained to use arms, trained in combat and assassination, form security details around commanders, learn radio communication and transport arms.
In recent years the Colombian government has stepped up a program of rescue and re-integration of child soldiers. These programs offer education, medical care, skills development and training. Soldiers under 18 are considered, under the Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Child, as victims and not combatants. They are not incarcerated or punished.
This government program is yielding significant results; 3,000 child soldiers have been de-mobilized since 2002. Although trauma to children living as guerrilla soldiers cannot be under-estimated, there has also been important success in programs run by ICBF, international agencies, and religious foundations.
I spent time in Cali, a city in southwest Colombia and a center of conflict for decades, and was deeply impressed with some of the broad-based re-integration programs there. Children who exit combatant groups, either through rescue by the Colombian military or by escape, are first taken to the public defender’s office where they are interviewed, given a physical exam and psychological evaluation.
If they are not deemed at risk, and if their families can be identified and contacted, the children can return home. If the children are at risk of recapture or if their families are now at risk of retribution, they are sent to a transition center.
One impressive transition center in Cali, Hogar Claret, has an immersion program developed by ICBF and Mercy Corps, (an international aid agency that I have chaired for six years). Typically children spend three months in the residential center.
Hogar Claret is designed as a stabilization program for youth combatants suffering from post-traumatic stress. When I visited the program, 23 youth were living there — 6 girls and 17 boys between the ages of 14 and 17.
Mercy Corps developed a therapeutic program for the youth that includes group and individual counseling, leadership development, daily meditation and yoga, and life planning skills. The youth are helped to see that the skills of hard work, discipline and leadership that they developed in the jungles can be used in positive life directions within normal society.
After three months in Hogar Claret, children move to the Don Bosco center, which provides aid to poor, homeless and other disadvantaged children. In Cali, 30 child ex-combatants live at the Don Bosco center where they stay until they turn 18-years-old. In addition to the 30 residents, Don Bosco serves as a youth center and vocational training for over a thousand youth in the area.
Once a student has completed the two-year vocational training program — in areas that include carpentry/woodworking, welding, industrial mechanical, cooking (for hotels and restaurants), hairdressing or sewing — they receive a government certificate, and many are placed in a six month internship with area businesses.
While youth face very real obstacles, these comprehensive reintegration programs and the natural resiliency of being young have yielded many wonderful individual success stories.
Julia is one such story.
The soft-spoken, gentle 19-year-old, grew up in a small coastal town located in the heart of the drug trade. Violence was a part of everyday life. Her older brother had joined ELN, one of the major rebel groups, when he was 18 and served for eight years before finally escaping. Soon after his disappearance, six ELN soldiers came to Julia’s house in the middle of the night taking Julia to replace her brother. She was 14 at the time.
Terrified and screaming, she and her parents pleaded with the soldiers. They took her far away to an encampment in the jungle.
“I was scared every day, scared out of my mind,” Julia said. “I worried I would die. I worried about my family.”
The young girl was trained to be a cook for her battalion, always threatened with punishment if she did something wrong, or threatened with death if she tried to escape. There was another boy in her group that she knew from her village.
“He was braver and more determined than I was,” she recalled.
They were in a remote part of the jungle and were not closely watched at night. In the middle of one night, the two of them escaped and made the long journey to Cali where her older brother lived. The child welfare agency placed Julia in the Hogar Claret combatant youth transition center. After three months there she moved to the Don Bosco center where she stayed for two years.
She studied hard and earned her high school degree. She won a scholarship from a Swiss foundation and is now at the university in Cali studying early childhood education while she works as a tutor at the Don Bosco center. She said she eventually wants to start her own daycare center, and credits the unwavering support of the teachers and counselors in the program for her success.
“They never doubted what I could do,” she said. “They became parents to me. When we first came here, we had to develop a life plan. And now it’s working!”
Carolina, another youth, now 18-years-old, in the Don Bosco Center, is appealing and charismatic. She is short, muscular, with a broad smile and quick laugh. I immediately felt drawn to her as she confidently moved around the woodworking shop showing me what she has created. As we sat and talked, it was hard to believe that this young enthusiastic girl was the same one whose story she recounted.
Carolina told me that she was 12 when she joined FARC. She was living with her grandmother in a small village and had a 19-year-old boyfriend who had joined FARC.
Carolina visited him frequently and became enticed by the guns and uniforms of the guerrilla soldiers. She eventually ran away from her grandmother’s house to join her boyfriend in FARC.
She was fierce, hardworking and quickly learned to use weapons — ultimately becoming a squadron commander at age 16.
“I had to put up a strong macho front and never show fear,” she said. “I learned to slit throats and felt nothing when I killed people.”
During a battle with government forces she was captured. She struggled and tried to run away. Carolina had always been told that if government forces captured her she would be tortured and imprisoned.
She was sent to the Hogar Claret transitional center.
“It took me six months to adjust,” she said. “I liked being a commander and having power. I wanted to return.”
Carolina credits the daily support of the counselors and teachers with her eventual embrace of a return to civilian life.
“They taught me to focus on the present, not the past, and they helped me to create a life plan that uses my skills.”
Carolina is now in the two-year carpentry program at Don Bosco. She has quickly become a leader in the program and works with younger ex-combatant children to help them make the transition. She has developed great artisanal carpentry skills, and her teacher has made her an assistant trainer in the large carpentry workshop. She has already found clients in a local shop and has been making decorative items, picture frames and small chests for sale, and her teachers often talk about her great initiative, talent and leadership skills.
Of course, not every child makes the transition out of combat as successfully as Carolina and Judith. But I saw great resiliency in these children and enormous compassion and commitment in the adults working with them. Whether the peace negotiations succeed or collapse, it is critically important for the new government to continue to focus on the crisis of child soldiers.
Programs such as the ones helping Julia and Carolina will make all the difference in the lives of thousands of children who are tragic casualties of this long conflict.
Linda Mason is the founder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, now the largest provider of workplace childcare in the world, employing 24,000 people and caring for over 100,000 children worldwide. She is also Honorary Chair of Mercy Corps.
This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.