When War Veterans Are Children ; Colombian Program Helps Former Child Soldiers Reintegrate into Civilian Life

Article excerpt

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 conflict.

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. …

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