All sides in the conflict in Colombia have abducted children. According to Human Rights Watch, the guerrillas call their child combatants “little bees” because they sting before the enemy realises it’s being attacked. The paramilitaries, for their part, call them “little bells” because child soldiers are usually deployed in forward positions, where they warn the adults of an early attack…and often bear the brunt of it. Two former child soldiers recount their experiences, and a senior government official explains how the authorities are trying to reintegrate these kids into society.
Original broadcast: November 2003
In a quiet suburb of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, a dozen children and young people listen attentively as a social worker explains the dangers of drug abuse. The teenagers are all former child soldiers from the various rebel groups and paramilitary organisations. They live together in an ordinary-looking house, with window locks, just like many other homes in this residential neighbourhood. It’s run by the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare, which is responsible for re-integrating the country’s child soldiers. Beatriz Londoño Soto is the Institute’s director.
In Colombia, 6 to 7000 teenagers under the age of 18 belong to the armed groups. 70% are members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, our country’s biggest rebel group. 70% are male, and 70% are between the ages of 16 and 18. But some are as young as 12. Most of them did not make a conscious decision to become child soldiers. They were forced to join or the illegal armed groups made promises, which they did not keep once the children joined.
Rosalía is one of the young people who was deceived by the guerrillas. It’s a word she uses often: deception. She was 13 years old when a group of rebels arrived at her home.
I was at home playing with my little nephew when they arrived. They called me over and started talking to me. There were three of them. They told me I should go with them. They would give me an education and they would help my family. They were lying. They took me off to the mountains.
I joined because of my cousin. We were going to the same school and he’s the one who convinced me to join. He told me that the rebels would help my parents. They’re poor, so I decided to leave my family and go with the rebels.
Luis was 12 when he joined the FARC. He didn’t tell his parents. One day, during recess, at 10 o’clock in the morning, he and his cousin left the school. A truck carrying rebels came by and his cousin spoke to the commander. Then the rebels took Luis and his cousin off to the mountains.
In the beginning, they treated me well because I was young. Then they started giving me training. They took me to a shooting range and taught me how to fire a weapon. When I was able to handle an AK-47, they issued us a weapon. I wasn’t afraid in the beginning because as a child, I wanted to use a rifle. The first time I got my hands on a weapon, I felt like a man.
There were other girls there too, but they were older. I still believed that they were going to help my family, but when I saw all those kids with rifles, I realised that it wasn’t true. We had to guard the camp, cook, cut wood and dig trenches. We were constantly being told off and punished.
After 8 months, I started fighting all the time. During the first battle, they killed my cousin. I was next to him. When I saw him fall down, I felt sad. But then I became angry and I wanted to take revenge. So I wanted to fight the army and the paramilitaries even more. I was afraid, really afraid at the beginning. But after I saw my cousin killed, I became less afraid. I knew I had to be a man. But those first battles were really tough. They killed a lot of my comrades and we had to fight hard not to be killed too.
At times, the clashes were brief, only 40 or 50 minutes, says Luis. But sometimes the fighting would go on for over a week non-stop. He remembers one battle during which they killed 15 paramilitary forces. 25 of his comrades also died.
The truth is that in the end, you just have to accept it. There were times when I wanted to put down my weapon and go back home, but I couldn’t. The only way to leave the rebels was to escape. So I just had to accept the fact that I had to kill or be killed. I just got used to the idea.
Luis was part of the FARC’s 8th Front. At times, there were 500 men and children, but sometimes there were only 100 or 150. It was everyone for himself, and sometimes Luis wound up sleeping, curled up on his own, underneath a tree. Food was plentiful in the guerrillas’ camp, but during the fighting, he and his comrades often went days without eating. Discipline was very severe.
Conditions were tough because the top commander was in our camp and he was very harsh. You had to ask permission for everything, even to drink a beer because we always had a commander with us. When we went down to the village, we couldn’t even go to the disco. We couldn’t do anything.I had friends, many friends, who helped me while I was there. One time, I was hit in the foot by a bullet. Two friends were the only ones who helped me. If it hadn’t been for them, I would have been killed too. They had doctors in the camp, experienced doctors who knew how to operate on people. I spent 6 months in the camp without being able to do anything. I just had to sit.
As time went by, Luis became more and more disillusioned. He had only one thought: to escape.
I spent almost 4 months planning my escape. All day long I’d think about how to get away. I was always afraid, but one day I got so fed up with everything that I just ran away. I wanted to be free and have a different life. I knew that the rebels were fighting a lost cause. You could kill and fight as much as you wanted, but you wouldn’t achieve anything. You’d just get a bullet in your head. Nothing else. I spent almost 4 years in the FARC. I was 16 when I finally left. The day I escaped, my unit was going to attack a police post. I was supposed to stay behind and guard our camp. I was the only one there, so I went down to the road and started running. I had to go up and down many mountain ranges to get away, and I got lost. I walked for three days till I reached a police station. When I got there, I tell you, I was really scared because I knew they were the enemy. But after I gave myself up, I saw things differently because those people helped me a lot. They gave me lots of advice. They gave me clothes and I took a bath. I could finally sleep without having to do guard duty.
Rosalía also ran away, after having spent a month with the ELN, the National Liberation Army, one of the other major rebel groups in Colombia.
I left the rifle in the guard post and I ran away. I wasn’t scared because all I wanted was to save myself. I got back home and my father helped turn me over to the Ombudsman’s office. They brought me here to Bogotá, and they told my father that he didn’t need to worry about me. The Institute for Family Welfare would take good care of me.
The Colombian government actively encourages the rebels, both adults and children, to desert. It also tries to quickly reintegrate the rebels who are captured by the army. The child soldiers are dealt with in three phases, says the Institute’s director, Beatriz Londoño.
A psycho-therapeutic team – consisting of social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and doctors – evaluates the children. The process begins immediately after the children desert or are captured. After a few days, they begin the second phase which involves re-educating the children. The main priority is to get them back in school. But I should point out that 12% of these children are completely illiterate. If, for whatever reason, they can’t go back to school, we offer them vocational training so that they’re able to earn a decent living in future. The third phase is reuniting the children with their families. If that’s not possible for security reasons, we look for relatives who are willing to take the children in so that they can continue their schooling or until they find a job.
Over 350 former child soldiers are currently enrolled in the programme. It lasts a minimum of 8 months, but sometimes much longer, depending on the child’s experiences.
Many of the girls were sexually abused. All the children suffered physical abuse. The rebels and paramilitary groups don’t only use them as support units, they even force them to take part in massacres. They use them as human shields during the fighting too. I believe Colombia is also the only country in the world where children are used to plant landmines.
The teenagers at the re-integration centre in Bogotá are quite rowdy at times. They know that they don’t have to stay there – in fact 5% drop out – but it’s not easy to adjust to normal life after so many years in the mountains with the rebels.
Sometimes I get bored here in this house. When we were in the mountains, if we tried to have some fun, the rebels would yell at us and punish us. Here we can have fun, but when we go overboard, the staff tell us off. I know it’s for our own good. I tell myself I had to spend 4 years with the rebels, so I can put up with a year of yelling because after that I will be completely free.
I don’t know how long I’m going to be in this centre. I’d like to go back and live with my father and my grandparents, but I can’t because he lives in the countryside and it’s too dangerous. That makes me sad. So I’ll have to go and live with my brother who lives in the village. He loves me very much because I’m the youngest in the family.
I think a lot about what happened, but it doesn’t bother me too much. Now that I’m free and I’m here in the city, I can see that I lost my childhood in the mountains. I wasn’t free. I couldn’t go to school. But I just have to accept that that was my destiny, and now I have to look towards the future.