Armed for a new life


March 15, 2012

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  • Former child soldiers learn how to cope with the trauma and develop skills to succeed in life during the Mercy Corps-supported reintegration process. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
  • At the government-run transitional home, the minors, who cannot be identified, go to school and participate in therapeutic, cultural and recreational group activities. Photo: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps

Six weeks ago, 16-year-old Juliana was fighting for the guerrillas in the Colombian countryside. Today she's one of 29 teenage ex-combatants living in a residential neighborhood of Cali, the country's third-largest city, learning how to get her life back on track.

Since last week, the Kony 2012 campaign has focused our anger on those who recruit children into battle. In Colombia, Mercy Corps is focusing its efforts on ensuring those young people can rejoin society and succeed in life.

Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army may be the most notorious exploiters of young bodies and minds, but they’re not alone. Children have joined the battle in 19 countries, according to Child Soldiers International’s most recent report; in Colombia, upwards of 14,000 children are fighting for one of several armed groups. A conflict that started decades ago as a leftist insurgency and a counterattack by wealthy landowners has largely disintegrated into a multiparty, mafia-like shootout over land and resources, fueled by the drug trade.

Juliana is one of several former child soldiers I've met this week in Cali, where a transitional home receives demobilized youth from the most intense regions of conflict. I can't show you her face, and I’ve changed her name, because the government — who is now her caretaker — is understandably protective of minors in its care.

Juliana volunteered for the FARC, Colombia’s oldest band of revolutionaries, about a year ago. It’s not clear what pushed her into joining, although she had problems at home, very little schooling and talked about the FARC as if it were a run-of-the-mill political party — a “very normal” part of everyday life in her rural village. In January, her battalion was marching across the mountains, commandeering homesteads as they went, when they came under attack by the Army. As soldiers surrounded the farmhouse where she was hiding, she and her compatriots cried out for their families. She thought she'd be killed.

Instead, she was given food, clothing, medical care and a fresh start. "They told me I'd have the opportunity to get the support I need, and reconnect with my family."

When a child soldier in Colombia turns themself in, or is captured by the Army, they begin a reintegration process run by the country’s child welfare office. Since last year, Mercy Corps has supported that process for dozens of kids in Cali, with financial support from the European Commission.

At the transitional home, we hold twice-weekly morning activities. Our aim in this first stage of reintegration is to help the kids process their trauma and adopt the habits and values they’ll need to rejoin society.

This morning, one of our child social workers, Liliana, was talking the home’s residents through a half-hour relaxation exercise. The kids, most dressed in t-shirts and jeans, lay prone on blue and red yoga mats that took up most of the first floor. "Imagine you are in the forest," she said soothingly. "You're going to plant a seed. How would it grow?"

About 20 minutes later, the kids rose from their mats and gathered in a circle to talk about what they envisioned. As the youth volunteered their visualizations, it was difficult to imagine them dressed in camouflage, rifles strapped across their backs, playing any of the roles I’d been told that kids play in this conflict: cook, messenger, spy, mine-layer, explosives maker, front-line fighter.

These young people seemed no different than the many kids and teens I’ve met during my three visits to Colombia. What they’ve been through, however, has been horribly different. And helping ensure that children who've been rescued from a violent reality can successfully transition to a better life requires hard work, dedication and know-how.

After a lunch of rice, meat, beans and salad, the teenagers hopped on a bus to attend afternoon classes at a nearby public school, where they're given individualized instruction in a separate classroom. They’d return at 6 p.m. for dinner, then break into groups to plan therapeutic, cultural, and recreational activities for the entire community to do later on.

After two to six weeks here, the teens will graduate to dormitories on the campus of a local technical school, where they’ll take workshops in cabinetry, metalwork, electronics; courses in computers and language; and get specialized psychosocial attention from our team and other program officials.

Juliana, who bunks with two other girls in a place that seemed "very boring" at first, now speaks with the bright-eyed wonder of someone who's just discovered a new world of possibilities. “I like computers. I like animals. I want to learn many things."

Capturing Kony is surely a noble aim. Attempting to ensure children are never forced to or feel the need to take up arms is worthy, too. But helping children reclaim lives that were nearly lost to war tops them all.