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
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. …