From child soldier to civilian - a tough transition in Colombia

More than 3,000 child soldiers in Colombia have turned in their guns and are ready to re-enter society. But is society ready to take them? asks Seth Biderman

‘This isn’t something you can tell everybody,’ 18-yearold Helena Sanchez says. ‘The truth weighs on you.’

Making her way through the staging area for a parade in downtown Bogotá, Helena pauses to take in the costumed street performers and stilt-walkers. Though the geographical distance is not great, the festive disorder is worlds away from the small Colombian town where she grew up – and where, at age 14, she made the decision that nearly cost her life.

‘If Colombian society is opposed to this conflict and the armed groups, why don’t they open the doors, open the opportunities to people who demobilize?’

‘I joined the FARC in a rage,’ she says, referring to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Latin America’s longest-standing rebel army. ‘I wanted to get revenge on the people who killed my father.’

If she achieved her mission, she doesn’t say. Instead, she describes how, one year after joining, she was shot in the back in a skirmish with the Colombian Armed Forces. After a life-saving operation, she was transported to Bogotá – where her long journey into civil society began.

It hasn’t been easy. Apart from learning to walk again and the emotional scars of war, Helena has seen her mother only twice in three years, and has not been able to return home at all. But with resilience, patience and hard work she’s managed to finish high school, and will soon graduate from technical school with a certificate as a nurse’s assistant.

It’s a remarkable success story. One would think Helena would be quick to share it with others. But she shakes her head. Apart from her therapy group and her foster family, she’s only told one close friend about her past. ‘Here,’ she says, casting a glance over her shoulder, ‘they reject you for having been in an armed group.’

The road to integration

A few blocks away, on the ninth floor of a nondescript skyscraper, are the offices of the Programme for Humanitarian Attention for Demobilized People (PAHD). PAHD is charged with convincing illegal combatants – whether leftist guerrillas or notorious rightwing paramilitaries – to turn over their weapons in exchange for a one-time judicial pardon (or lightened sentence, depending on the crimes committed), a few months of secure room and board and, in many cases, several thousand dollars. The programme took off under former President Alvaro Uribe’s ‘Plan for Democratic Security’ – soft words for an all-out assault on FARC forces that reduced their number from nearly 20,000 to 8,000 between 2002 and 2010. ‘The idea is to take down the enemy,’ explains a civilian spokesperson, ‘but without firing a shot.’

A stolen childhood: for those recruited into the FARC’s rebel army, returning to civilian life is a new challenge. This photo of a young girl holding a weapon was found on the body of a rebel killed in combat in 2008.

Reuters/National Police/ Handout

Among their tactics are television commercials and radio ads – even a bag of soccer balls signed by the Colombian national team, to be dropped by helicopter into the jungle, inviting the guerrillas to leave the conflict and play.

Apparently, the propaganda is working. PAHD claims some 50,000 demobilizations since 2002, including more than 3,000 children.

As for what happens after the soldiers turn in their guns, the spokesperson says that the adults get turned over to the High Council for Reintegration, and children are left in the hands of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF).

Carlos Osorio can’t really explain why he joined the FARC eight years ago at the age of 13. It had something to do with typical adolescent restlessness and, he admits, ‘with the curiosity of holding a gun’. But after three years in the jungle, he knew he was ready to leave. He and a trusted comrade started considering their options. ‘We would listen secretly to the radio,’ he says. ‘We heard the ads, former comrades telling us to demobilize, that the government would help us.’

Since deserting could mean execution if they were caught and execution for their families if they weren’t, they staged their own capture. Sent into town for an operation, they ditched their weapons and fatigues, called up a friend whose brother was a police officer, arranged a meeting spot and prayed that the government radio ads weren’t a ploy.

They weren’t. Carlos’s friend, who was over 18, was brought to the base for interrogation. Carlos, as a minor, could not legally be interrogated, but was kept in a holding cell for three weeks while they verified his age. From there he was turned over to ICBF in Bogotá.

Carlos knows he won’t rejoin the FARC, but when asked if he’s in danger of falling into a life of crime, he says ‘claro’ – obviously

It didn’t go well. For two years, he bounced between group homes and foster homes, sometimes attending high school classes, sometimes trying a technical college. ‘I just wanted to be home,’ he says. ‘I thought about my family all the time.’

On his 18th birthday, with few academic or technical skills and even fewer prospects for employment, Carlos completed the ICBF programme and was given the first instalment of his government reparation – $300 deposited into his bank account. He celebrated with some friends, caught a bus to Medellín to visit his mother for a month and then returned to Bogotá.

That was three years ago. The government stopped depositing money into his account recently and, after a few frustrating visits to different offices, he’s given up trying to find out why. Now he’s living with an uncle, attempting to work his way into the music scene, and vaguely looking for a job. He confesses he has stopped working on his highschool degree. He knows he won’t rejoin the FARC, but when asked if he’s in danger of falling into a life of crime, he says ‘claro’ – obviously. And then he is silent. It seems, for the moment, that Carlos is running out of options.

Resilience and opportunity

‘These kids don’t need money,’ says social worker Andrea Jimenez Pinzon. ‘They need opportunity.’

For seven years, Jimenez Pinzon has tried to help former child soldiers work their way back into society, including co-ordinating one of the ICBF group homes. (Today, these group homes have been abandoned in Bogotá, and foster families take in the young people instead.) Though she credits ICBF for providing security and meeting basic needs, she feels the government’s approach is overprotective, creating too much of a victim mentality among teenagers. Recently she’s begun working with a non-profit called Taller de Vida (Workshop of Life), which draws on theories like Augusto Boal’s theatre of the oppressed to help teenagers tap into their own resilience and develop a sense of empowerment.

Though she sees positive results – Helena, for example, has been with the programme since she came to Bogotá – she worries that, no matter how empowered the kids become, the stigma of having been with an armed group will be too much to overcome.

A recent survey of 1,070 Colombian businesses by the Office of International Immigration found that 96 per cent were not actively participating in government-sponsored efforts to create jobs for demobilized soldiers – and over 40 per cent didn’t support the idea at all. She notes that, even in the non-profit world, local agencies tend to shy away from child soldiers – which may explain why all Taller de Vida’s funding comes from abroad.

‘You have to hide who you really are,’ confirms Alejandra Castro, who joined the FARC at the age of 11 to escape an abusive home life. She was 15 when the police captured her

‘You have to hide who you really are,’ confirms Alejandra Castro, who joined the FARC at the age of 11 to escape an abusive home life. She was 15 when the police captured her. Highly articulate and sharply intelligent, Alejandra is now 24. She graduated from high school and earned a nursing degree. She’s also become something of a spokesperson for child soldiers. Inspired by Taller de Vida, she organized a theatre collective and travelled the country to work with young people who might be vulnerable to joining the FARC. She’s even spoken in front of the United Nations in New York.

But when she did her clinical placement for nursing school she didn’t mention her history. ‘That clinic had thrown out three students in the past when they learned they’d belonged to armed groups. So I said nothing – which is sad. If Colombian society is opposed to this conflict and the armed groups, why don’t they open the doors, open the opportunities to people who demobilize?’

The country’s new president, Juan Manuel Santos, seems inclined to seek dialogue with the FARC. At the same time, the group continues its guerrilla campaign – and new criminal gangs are flourishing across the country. Despite billions in US military aid, the lucrative drug trade is booming, providing plenty of fuel for the conflict.

What is clear is that the nation’s future – like the futures of Helena, Carlos and Alejandra – depends on more than just the willingness of armed groups to turn in their weapons. If they are to put the conflict behind them, the Colombian people must be willing to open their arms to the ex-child soldiers.

Seth Biderman is a freelance writer based in Cali, Colombia.