Pubdate: Thu, 21 Dec 2000
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2000 The Dallas Morning News
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Author: Tod Robberson

CHILDHOOD IS LOST IN COLOMBIA'S WAR

Rebels Deny Forcibly Recruiting Youths To Serve In Combat Roles

TRES ESQUINAS, Colombia -- It's hard enough to be a 15-year-old
anywhere in the world. In rural Colombia, adolescence has a
particularly hellish twist.

For Giseth, a high school student with an engagingly broad smile,
there's the eternal battle against acne and boy problems and lots of
homework. Then she has questions about the future, about whether to
become a biologist or a veterinarian, and whether Colombia's
insurgents will let her live long enough to decide.

"Everyone hears the same stories. The guerrillas or the paramilitaries
will come and take us away by force," she said, playing with a
ponytail she had arranged deliberately askew on the left side of her
head. "You think about whether it might happen. You think about it all
the time."

With Colombia's war intensifying, fueled in part by a $1.3 billion
infusion of mostly military aid from the United States, guerrillas and
paramilitary groups are searching everywhere for young recruits to
serve on the front lines.

When volunteers fail to step forward, the "draft" is imposed, and
teenagers like Giseth are among the preferred choices for induction,
sometimes at gunpoint, human-rights groups say. Others are lured away
by the promise of action, adventure and a life free from the
encumbrances of parents and schoolwork.

But once an insurgent, there are few routes for escape, human-rights
groups say. Exposure to wanton acts of barbarity often becomes
routine, warping any vestiges of youthful innocence, they add. And new
evidence is surfacing to suggest that some teenagers are being
sexually abused.

"The guerrillas tell you, 'I am your mother. I am your father.' They
tell you what to do and when to do it," said another 15-year-old named
Constanza.

"And no matter what it is, you have to do it  even if they tell you
to kill another person."

The full names of the children who agreed to be interviewed are being
withheld for their own protection. The riverside town of Tres Esquinas
is governed by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or
FARC, the nation's largest insurgent group, which has been fighting
the government for more than three decades. The FARC has been the
target of most complaints by human-rights groups about the use of
minors in combat, although anti-rebel paramilitary militias also
reportedly use children in combat.

Allegations Denied

The FARC says it does not kidnap children or forcibly recruit minors,
although it acknowledges that children are among the guerrillas'
combat forces. FARC spokesman Andres Paris said the rebels often will
take in children orphaned by war. And if a child decides to leave home
voluntarily to join the guerrillas, he or she will be accepted into
noncombat roles.

"We have a rule that says we cannot accept any recruits under the age
of 15. Some people think that a youth of 15 is still a boy, but we say
that the social drama of Colombia obliges even children of 8 or 9
years old to do many things that do not relate to their age," Mr. Paris said.

Nobody knows for sure how many children are serving with the
insurgents, but the United Nations Children's Fund estimates the
number at 6,500.

Colombia's war is only one of 25 conflicts around the world where an
estimated 300,000 children under age 18 may be serving in combat
roles, according to UNICEF.

"We think it is totally unacceptable to have a teenager walking around
with guns, fighting," said Carel de Rooy, chief of the UNICEF mission
in Colombia. "Such a child should be in school. It's a gross violation
of the child's rights to take them out of their normal
environment."

Colombian authorities say the green-uniformed bodies of teenagers are
being encountered increasingly after battles between government forces
and the insurgents, particularly the FARC.

"The vanguard of the guerrilla fronts is made up of minors, who are
being turned into cannon fodder," said Luis Eduardo Cifuentes,
Colombia's national human-rights ombudsman. "As such, they are the
first to fall" in combat, or to become "instruments of murder," he
said.

In Tres Esquinas, a town of 500 in southern Colombia, the FARC is the
only authority because the town falls within a 16,000-square-mile
haven created by President Andres Pastrana two years ago. About 10
youths from the town have left in recent years to join the FARC, local
schoolchildren said.

Within days of the safe haven's creation, parents inside the zone
began complaining to government authorities that their children were
being abducted by the guerrillas. Parents of such children rarely
agree to be interviewed, saying they fear for their own safety as well
as for their children's.

Sexual Abuse Suspected

Even outspoken children such as Giseth and Constanza say they will not
tell everything they know about the rebels' activities in the zone
because they fear retaliation.

But hard evidence is mounting that the FARC is putting guns into the
hands of children as young as 11 and 12 years old.

Mr. Cifuentes reported earlier this month that during post-battle
autopsies, the bodies of 11 teenage girls fighting with the FARC were
found to have had intra-uterine devices, or IUDs, surgically fitted
over their cervixes to prevent conception during sexual
intercourse.

"This is a clear sign of how much the conflict has degraded in the
country," he said.

A FARC guerrilla, interviewed by the Bogota newspaper El Tiempo this
month after he was captured in a recent battle, said that girls
typically are required to report to a camp nurse as soon as they are
recruited, and that insertion of the IUDs is mandatory. The guerrilla,
who was not identified, denied that girls are being sexually abused.
He said the IUDs were strictly for contraception in case female
fighters become sexually active.

Carlos, another 15-year-old in Tres Esquinas, said the normal rules of
rebel recruitment are well-known within the town.

"They do not recruit here by force, but I have heard of it in other
places," he said. "If you decide to go, they make sure you understand
all of the rules. For example, if I join up, my parents have 15 days
to ask to have me back. But if my parents don't say anything, then I
stay with the rebels."

He offered one final, chilling observation: "Once you're in, there is
no exit. You are with the guerrillas until you die."

About a year ago, Giseth said, two of her teenage friends disappeared
from her home village, and no one knew what had happened to them. Then
one day, as she was passing through a guerrilla checkpoint, Giseth
noticed a familiar face.

"I looked back, and there they were, my two friends, checking people's
documents," she said. Neither she nor the two boys said anything to
acknowledge each other, so she had no way of knowing whether they had
joined or been forced into service.

"They were busy doing their jobs," she said. "I never saw them again."

Targeting Youths

In at least two cases this year, Colombian mothers have voluntarily
given away their sons to foster families after receiving threats from
the FARC that the boys would be taken by force, said Julian Aguirre,
director of the Colombian Institute of Family Well-being, a government
aid agency.

In other cases, deeply impoverished families have handed over their
children to the insurgents, believing the rebels could offer them a
better life, Mr. Aguirre added.

The use of child fighters holds distinct dangers for the future of
Colombian society, said Mr. de Rooy of UNICEF. The most immediate is
that, with more children taking up weapons, combatants are more likely
to begin targeting the general population of children, believing them
to be the enemy.

In August, a group of soldiers out on patrol in northern Colombia
opened fire on a group they thought to be guerrillas. The victims
turned out to be children on a nature walk. Six were killed, ranging
in age from 6 to 12.

A military court later absolved the soldiers of wrongdoing, ruling it
an accident.

A Choice For Some

Mr. Aguirre's agency conducted a survey of child insurgents two years
ago to determine how many were being held against their will.

"We believe that about 70 percent of the youths who join the
insurgents do so voluntarily, and the other 30 percent join under
pressure," Mr. Aguirre said. "And they join for various reasons. For
example, their parents were members of that armed group, so the
children decided to join as well. Or because their home life involved
a high level of intra-family violence, poverty, sexual abuse."

In many cases, he said, the children interviewed described life under
combat as an improvement to the conditions they lived under
previously. Even so, the psychological damage they suffer can be
irreversible.

"Participating in war alters your perception of the world and skews
your moral structure. It distorts the image of what is good and what
is bad," Mr. Aguirre said.

"To witness traumatic things, to participate in acts of barbarity, or
to serve as a guard over a kidnap victim, creates in the child a
permanent sense of guilt and blame," he said.

He predicted severe problems in Colombia's future unless some type of
counseling program is established to help such children re-enter society.

"El Salvador did nothing after its civil war," which lasted from 1980
to 1992, he said. "Now El Salvador is the country with the highest
rate of murder and juvenile violence in the world."
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