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

The guerrillas brought her up the river until they reached a distant camp. She woke up alongside several other children, each around 10 or 11. Their first lesson was hiding in trenches during bombings by the military.

Melida’s father, Moises, a traditional healer of the Amazon’s Cubeo group, was away at the time and did not return to their village for another month. He quickly left again to find the girl.

Moises went to the guerrilla camp near the village and asked to meet the commander, a tall FARC fighter in fatigues.

“I said, ‘I came for my daughter,’” Moises said. “He said she wasn’t there.”

In the camp, Melida had been renamed Marisol and began her schooling. A Dutch woman who had joined the fighters and spoke broken Spanish taught lessons on the history of communism, the FARC and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, something Melida had never learned in her indigenous village.

Melida was also learning to make land mines.

One “looked like a fish” and was triggered with a tripwire made of string, she said. Another was called the quiebrapatas, or the “leg-breaker,” because it maimed rather than killed its victim.

“I said, ‘I want to go home,’” she remembered saying. “But they told me, ‘Once you enter a camp, you cannot leave.’”

Melida said she saw the fate of runaway fighters firsthand. Once, a 20-year-old and his 14-year-old sister disappeared before dawn and soon found themselves trapped on the edge of a muddy river. They had not learned to swim.

Melida joined the search for them. When the pair were found, they were shot dead.

“First the brother, then the sister,” Melida said.

She remembered feeling no remorse that day: “I said to myself, ‘Yes — yes they should be killed.’”

She was 12 years old.

Years after she was kidnapped, FARC rebels passed through her village and mentioned Melida to her family.

“They said she had died in an attack,” her father said. “After that, I just forgot about her. I thought it was best to forget.”

In reality, a commander in his 40s had taken an interest in her. At first, he followed her around the camp. Then one day, when she was 15, he asked her to wash his clothes in his tent.

“Give me a kiss,” she recalled him saying.

“I don’t know how,” she said.

“Then I’ll teach you,” the commander said.

She was later given a birth control implant in her arm and the commander forced her into a relationship, she said.

“Imagine waking up next to someone who was that old when you are that young,” she said.

At 16, she asked the commander if she could visit her family. She was surprised when he agreed. Carrying the pistol and the grenade, she made her way back home for what was meant to be a short reunion.

The village was unrecognizable. A warship was now stationed near the dock. The home from which she had been abducted was abandoned.

“I told the first person I saw that I was Mr Moises’ daughter and they said I couldn’t be, because that daughter was dead,” she said.

Melida said she does not know why her father turned her in to the military the next day.

“He wanted me not to go back perhaps,” she said. “He wanted the best for me.”

However, Moises, sitting in his daughter’s living room on a recent afternoon, offered another explanation.

“I wanted to buy a motorcycle,” he said.

After a moment he added, “They never gave me the reward I was promised.”

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