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Helping fellow soldiers back from battle: Adriana's fresh start

Colombia, May 11, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Adriana spent six years in the National Liberation Army, a band of Marxist rebels founded in 1964. She began in basic training and eventually rose to positions of chief radio operator and second-in-command of 300 men. Her younger sister followed her into the group and was later killed. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    A fellow soldier, captured days earlier, betrayed Adriana to the Colombian Army on her way to a money drop. “He told me, ‘Oh Adriana, forgive me, but I was caught, and I didn’t want to leave you here. You’re a woman who deserves better things.’” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Captured the day before her 18th birthday, Adriana did not face criminal charges. Eventually, the government placed her in a transitional home, the first step of its rehabilitation process for child soldiers. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Adriana’s transition from the armed group was rocky. She shut down and refused orders from teachers, psychologists and other transitional-home staff. “It was hard coming from a place where I was in charge of 300 people,” she says. “I thought that if I behaved badly, they would let me go.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “What changed? I think...reading,” she explains. About a month into the program, Adriana picked up a popular book about a shoeshine boy who goes on adventures. Eventually, he becomes a successful businessman. “I started to identify myself with him. Maybe I can be like that boy.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Adriana began applying the discipline she’d learned as a guerrilla to her new classes and activities, including dance and soccer, which she played regularly. As part of the transition process, she studied hairstyling at a vocational school and landed a job at a salon. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Soon after leaving the program, Adriana became pregnant. It was unplanned. She stopped playing soccer and quit the salon to avoid the toxic chemicals. Her son, Nicolas, was born almost two months premature. “Even when I was delivering I said, ‘I don't know what I am going to do, I don't know anything about babies,’” she says. “But seeing him there, so small, so innocent, well, you fall in love.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps’ Colombia team hired Adriana to be the operations assistant when our child soldier program started in January 2011, in part because her experiences would provide a model to teenagers in transition. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    As operations assistant, Adriana is the team’s logistical hub — organizing meetings, keeping track of schedules and making things runs smoothly. She also serves as a counselor and confidant to the teens. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “I feel very happy to be able to help the young people because I belonged to them. When they come here, they don’t have self-confidence; we don’t know what it is to trust another person.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    “It’s so gratifying when the young people come to you and say, ‘Thank you for teaching me, thank you for listening to me.’ There’s nothing like being listened to and having your opinions matter.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Adriana recently earned her high-school diploma, will take university-level classes in computers this spring, and eventually wants to study criminal justice and forensics. “That’s my long-term dream,” she says. More than anything, she wants her son to be the best at whatever he chooses to become. “My whole world revolves around him. He’s the light of my eyes.” Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Helping former child soldiers rejoin society is familiar territory for Adriana. She was raised by her uncle in a small village where armed insurgents operated openly. Two older siblings had already left home to fight when she joined the National Liberation Army, one of several guerrilla groups in Colombia’s brutal civil conflict. She was just 12 years old, three days shy of her fifth-grade graduation.

Today, at age 22, Adriana is part of the five-person Mercy Corps team that helps demobilized teens rebuild their lives. She went through the program herself, and these former combatants look to her as an example of what it looks like to start over.