Children of War. (Features)

By Herrera Tellez, Adriana | Hemisphere, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Children of War. (Features)

Herrera Tellez, Adriana, Hemisphere

More children than soldiers have been affected by the armed conflict in Colombia. As the violence has intensified, children have gone from being indirect victims to virtual prisoners of war. UNICEF estimates that 6,000 boys and girls have been recruited into the ranks of one or another side in the fighting.

"When children reach the age of four they start being trained as couriers to carry messages between the members of armed groups," says Julian Aguirre, director of a social reinsertion program for minors at the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF). "At the age of seven they are taught minor logistical tasks, and by 13 they are ready to become combatants."

These are Colombia's children of war.

"In a context of continuing violence, the situation becomes normal," Aguirre adds. "Some of these children come from families caught up in the dynamics of the conflict in such regions as Magdalena Medio, Casanare and Arauca."

According to the ICBF's director, Juan Manuel Urrutia, 70% of the children his institute works with have links to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which considers anyone above the age of 15 an adult. Many children claim to have joined the guerrillas voluntarily, but later found it almost impossible to leave.

The guerrillas also engage in forced recruitment. For example, it is common for them to demand that families have one of their children report for training or temporary service every two weeks. This obligation not only uproots young people from their communities--in general, they are sent on duty far away from their homes--but also from their personal development, and childhood itself.

The practice of using minor-age combatants is not limited to the guerrillas. Colombia's Ombudsman reports that up to half of some units of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are minors. According to Urrutia, the paramilitaries have a more mercenary focus and recruit adults with a $250 monthly salary, far above the earnings of many Colombians. Apparently, the organization does not find it worth its while to waste its resources on minors, who are less effective militarily. In a 1999 interview with the television network Caracol, however, the founder of the AUC, Carlos Castano, stated that in the Department of Cordoba his forces kept order with the help of the sons of local ranchers, who "volunteered" their services.

All around Colombia, boys and girls kill and die in a conflict they do not understand, but which they cannot escape. According to the ICBF and other groups, a fourth of minors fighting with the guerrillas and paramilitaries die in combat. Another fourth switch their affiliation between armed groups, and many of the remainder either escape, are captured or turn themselves in to the authorities. Although the recruitment figures are basically even for both sexes, most of those captured in battle are boys, who are more likely to be on the front lines. Girls are given more logistical tasks or domestic duties in the fighters' camps.

Children of both sexes make desirable recruits because they are more impressionable than adults, arouse less suspicion, cost less to maintain and are easily replaced. But terror is not the most common recruitment tactic. Instead, youngsters are lured with false promises of training and told that they can leave whenever they want. Families also come under pressure to prove their loyalty by turning over their children. To avoid this form of tribute, even some guerrilla and paramilitary collaborators send their sons and daughters to boarding schools far from home.

One thing is clear: The war tax is paid in kind, with forced or voluntary child recruits. For those children who find themselves in the midst of an adult war, the only agenda becomes survival.

A Child's View

The Geneva-based Terre des Hommes has compiled the testimony of 12 children who spent time at Benposta, an organization that aids minors in the capital and areas under guerrilla or paramilitary control. …

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