Tue, May 03, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Former child soldier struggles to find her feet as Colombia contemplates peace

‘Melida’ struggles to adjust to the chores and daily classes at a center meant to rehabilitate child soldiers, and is drawn to her past life

By Nicholas Casey  /  NY Times News Service, CALDAS, Colombia

Illustration: Yusha

Melida was only nine when guerrilla fighters lured her away with the promise of food as she played on the floor. For the next seven years she was held hostage by the rebels, forced to become a child soldier.

Her family thought she had died in battle. Then Melida suddenly returned to her village at 16, carrying a pistol and a grenade. Only her grandfather recognized her — from a birthmark on her cheek.

The very next day, the military surrounded her house, called by an informant seeking the bounty on her head.

“I found out my own father had turned me in,” she said.

Colombia is nearing a peace agreement with the rebels to end a half-century of fighting, one of the longest conflicts in the world.

More than 220,000 people have been killed, leaving a country bitterly divided over what role, if any, former rebels should play in society once they drop their weapons for a new, unarmed life outside the jungle.

That includes thousands of rebel fighters who were raised since childhood to carry out armed struggle. Many of them know little else but war.

“There are times when I think about returning to the guerrillas, because this life is hard here,” said Melida, now 20, who, like other former child soldiers, asked that her last name not be used, because she fears reprisals over her links to the rebels.

She is now caught between two worlds, she said, belonging to neither.

“True, we were children waiting for our deaths, but I’m always thinking about returning,” she said.

The rebels, known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, say they do not recruit children. Yet during a recent visit to a FARC camp by the New York Times, a half-dozen soldiers as young as 15 said they had been recruited by the rebels only months earlier.

In government rehabilitation centers throughout Colombia, minors told similar stories of being spirited away to camps by rebels. Now they face a future for which they are thoroughly unprepared.

Fabio said he was kidnapped by rebel fighters at the age of nine.

By the time he was 13, he said, his commanders began sending him on solo missions to slit the throats of government soldiers as they slept.

He said his own family did not look for him or inform the authorities of his abduction.

“They would have been killed,” said Fabio, who is now 19.

Freddy said he joined the FARC at 14 to avenge the killing of a cousin by paramilitary forces.

He deserted at 16 with two dozen other soldiers. However, he said his aunt, fearing reprisals from the guerrillas, told him never to return to his village.

Finding a place for these former soldiers is vital to the success of any peace deal, analysts say.

“If poor or botched reintegration programs fail to offer opportunities to former child combatants, Colombia’s powerful paramilitaries and trafficking groups might offer them a tempting alternative,” said Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.

At the rebel camp, one FARC commander, who goes by the name Teofilo Panclasta, defended the use of child soldiers, saying that many joined to escape trouble at home.

“If a girl comes at 15 as a prostitute and wants to join us to stop being a whore, what are we going to say?” he asked.

Melida said that when her captors came to her house along the river, they drew her attention by saying they had soup in their canoe.

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