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Capture or surrender earns second chance

Colombia, May 8, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Demobilized youth who’ve fought in some of the fiercest conflict zones end up in Cali, one of six cities where the government runs transition homes for former child soldiers. They start their two-year-long reintegration process at a large, nondescript house in a quiet residential neighborhood. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    In mid-March, 26 boys and 3 girls resided in the house. Some were as young as 13; none was older than 18. About one new resident arrives each week, and most stay between two weeks and two months before graduating to a vocational school. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Since 2001, nearly 5,000 child soldiers have gone through this government-run rehabilitation process. They spent an average of two years in armed groups, where they fought, cooked, spied, stood guard, cared for hostages, made explosives and dug trenches. Estimates of how many children remain in illegal armed groups range from 5,000 to 14,000. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Most newly arrived youth exhibit signs of post-traumatic stress. They’re quick to anger, and can be violent or threatening. Most want to return home, but the risks to their own safety are too high. The aim in this first stage of reintegration is to help the kids process their trauma, address medical issues, and adopt the habits and values they’ll need to rejoin society. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The house’s full-time staff includes two educators and a psychologist. Mercy Corps complements their work by holding twice-weekly morning activities focused on personal development. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Here, one of our youth re-education specialists, Liliana García, talks the home’s residents through a half-hour relaxation exercise designed to help them visualize their future. "Imagine you are in the forest," she tells them soothingly. "You're going to plant a seed. How would it grow?" Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    After the relaxation exercise, Liliana asks the youth to use beans and glue and construction paper to represent the change that they feel inside. Gaining control over one’s emotions is a major theme at this stage of rehabilitation. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    After a lunch of rice, meat, beans and salad, the teens hop on a bus to attend afternoon classes at a nearby public school, where they're given individualized instruction in a separate classroom. Most have less than a third grade education. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    On a different morning, Mercy Corps’ Carlos Ramírez explains the building blocks of an economy, including why it’s important to discover one’s talents and develop skills in order to earn a living. Carlos teaches income-generation classes to youth in all stages of the rehabilitation program. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    From the transition home, the teens graduate to dormitories on the campus of a local vocational school, which offers workshops in a variety of trades, including cabinetry, cooking, metalwork and electronics, and classroom courses in subjects such as computers and language. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Students in Alfredo Acevedo’s cabinetry workshop are very receptive to learning, he says. “Many arrive not knowing how to read well, but that’s not necessary for making furniture.” His lessons include mathematics and technical drawing. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Teachers at the school focus on teaching not only technical skills, but also values students need to hold down a job, such as punctuality, personal grooming and how to fill out a resume. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps complements the school-based curriculum by offering a variety of activities designed to build self-esteem and improve critical-thinking skills. One uses soccer and yoga activities to help improve self-esteem, self-control and change stereotypes about gender roles. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Other activities help youth cope with peer pressure and construct a life plan for themselves. Here, child re-educator Nancy Tello discusses the consequences of using violence to resolve problems. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Many youth have the opportunity practice the trade they learn at a local business. In Colombia, businesses with more than 15 employees must offer youth internships. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Youth live on campus for an average of eight to 12 months before setting out on their own, armed with the skills they need to find a job and support themselves. Jhon Hernando cuts hair at a friend’s salon, a trade he learned at the vocational school. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Three graduates of the transition program — 18-year-old Arinson, 19-year-old Ariel and 21-year-old Angel — formed a singing group to share the lessons they've learned. "Mercy Corps gave me tools for the future — like how to resolve conflicts and relate to others," explained Angel (far right). "I respect my neighbor, my neighbor will respect his neighbor.... If we all do the same, we will reach that peace that we need so much." Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Child soldiers in Colombia escape the front lines one of two ways: by turning themselves in, or being rescued in battle. Most come from the countryside, where schools and jobs are scarce, and join an armed group as a way to escape poverty. But if they fall into government hands before they turn 18, these former combatants are given a second chance.