April 21, 2000

Colombia's Child War Veterans In Need of Rescue

By Howard Lafranchi
The Christian Science Monitor

BOGOTA -- At an age when most 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 adrenaline 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 symbolise most emphatically the lost "right to childhood" that 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 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 programme of reinsertion into productive life recognising that," says Lina Gutirrez, who four months ago opened the government's first home and education centre for former child warriors.

"We want to treat them as the consequences and not the criminals of this conflict." 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.

The country still lacks the legislation to change the children's legal status and official treatment. Currently, juvenile deserters or those captured are considered criminals.

"They go before a judge who determines how long they must remain under review in an institution. We want them to be assigned a family defender," says Gutirrez. She wants the emphasis put on education and not punishment.

But she recognizes that changing the law is an uphill fight. "Our society rejects these children," says Gutirrez. "They are seen as killers, and many of them have killed. But they aren't delinquents ... that's what we don't want them to become."

No one reason explains why so many children are fighting Colombia's war. Some are rounded up during guerrilla or paramilitary sweeps of villages as a kind of tribute families must pay. Others, drawn by the illusion of war's excitement and the need to belong, join up on their own.

Colombia is beginning to shift its view on child soldiers in the right direction, says Ramrez-Ocampo, who directed the United Nations peace plan for Central America. But he says Colombia risks finding itself with thousands of child soldiers turned street criminals, as El Salvador did, if it doesn't do more now to prepare for children who with a peace accord would come out of the conflict.

"When the Central American conflicts ended, there was still little thought given to the specific problem of child combatants," he says. "Now I think Colombia can do better."

(Rreprinted from "Child Labour News Service", April 15, 2000.)

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