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 soldiers interrogated Melida at one base after another, she said. What was her real name, they asked? Who were her commanders? Where were the FARC bases?

After two weeks, Melida was taken to a government rehabilitation center for indigenous youth who had left the FARC. It was on a mountainside in an alien part of the country for Melida, who had never seen the Andes before she was captured.

The center was home to about 20 other former child soldiers. Daily classes and chores, meant to adjust them to civilian life, were new to her. Other requirements, like another birth control implant, reminded her of the FARC.

War was constantly on Melida’s mind.

“When I would get up, I would reach beside me to take my rifle and realize there wasn’t one there,” she said.

Center director Victor Hugo Ochoa said Melida arrived angry and often threatened to run away.

“It was hard to intervene,” he said. “She formed her own constellation of kids who turned on us.”

At night, Melida began sneaking out of the center with a man named Javier, whose mother was a cook there. He was nine years older than Melida, but the two would go out drinking and partying in a nearby town.

Javier had a bad history with the rebels. In 2004, his brother, a soldier, was killed by a FARC sniper. His family never forgave the guerrillas, a tension at the heart of any peace deal.

Despite this, Melida and Javier realized they were falling in love.

“Why did it have to be her?” he said. “From the people who killed my brother?”

Melida was forming another relationship — with her father, who began visiting to get to know her again.

After turning Melida in, Moises now wanted a role in his daughter’s life. However, even communicating was a challenge: Melida had lost some of her fluency in Cubeo, the indigenous language they had spoken when she was a child.

“She was just some young lady I didn’t know,” he said.

The new ties were changing her, Ochoa said.

She was getting to know her two cousins, Maria and Leila, themselves former FARC members who had left the center. Javier’s mother, Dora, was teaching Melida to cook and clean, taking on a mother’s role, he said.

Dora took Melida’s FARC history in stride.

“My daughter is married to a policeman; another is with a soldier,” she said. “Javier is with an ex-guerrilla. The only thing we’re missing in this family is a paramilitary.”

One day, Melida’s birth control implant failed and she became pregnant.

Dora pulled Melida aside.

“I told her, ‘Now you have something to fight for that’s not the revolution,’” she said.

Melida’s daughter, Celeste, was born last year.

The daily tasks of motherhood consumed Melida for weeks. However, the anger remained.

“She told me she was raised for war, not to care, not to be a lover,” Javier said. “She would tell me, ‘I love you, but understand my life hasn’t been easy.’”

One day, Javier returned to find that Melida and the baby were gone.

Days before, Melida had mentioned returning to rebel territory to see her sister, but now Javier thought it was a ruse to return to the FARC fold.

It was not the case. Instead, her bus had been stopped at a checkpoint by rebels who questioned each of the passengers.

“I thought they would catch me again,” said Melida, who realized then she did not want to go back, at least not that day.

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