A youth orchestra played the national anthem, and schoolchildren danced as Colombia’s defence minister - flanked by generals and soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests - entered a packed hall in the Colombian town of Tame in the country’s northeast.
The audience, a mix of local schoolchildren and public officials, had gathered to hear the experiences of four former child soldiers who had recently laid down their arms after each spending more than 10 years fighting for Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The event last month was part of government efforts to encourage the FARC’s 8,000 fighters to desert rebel ranks and prevent young men and women from joining the rebels in the first place.
While the government and FARC have been sitting for nearly a year at the negotiating table in Havana in a bid to end 50 years of war, Colombian authorities are forging ahead with public campaigns across the country to get fighters to turn themselves in and enter government reintegration programmes.
One by one, the demobilised fighters shared their stories. They spoke of women forced to undergo abortions and the constant threat of being shot if caught trying to escape.
The message was clear for the fidgety audience of adolescents: Life in the FARC will only bring you misery. Stay away.
One former rebel fighter, Luz Segura, said she joined the FARC when she was just 12 years old to escape an abusive father. But in her life with the guerrilla group, the abuse continued.
As a child soldier, she witnessed fellow fighters killed in bombing raids launched by government security forces and civilians who were branded as army informants shot dead by the rebels.
“I wanted to be the girl who went to school," Segura, now 35, told the audience. "But I ended up holding my first weapon when I was 12 years old. Abuse of women and forced abortion happens. They (FARC commanders) never let me see my family. You have no rights.”
Segura was a nurse with the FARC for 22 years before managing to escape.
“I just couldn’t take the violence anymore. For me, demobilising was like being reborn,” she said.
Near the border with Venezuela, the oil rich province of Arauca where Tame lies is a strategic area for drugs and arms smuggling by the FARC and other criminal groups.
In just the last three months, around 25 soldiers have been killed in the rural areas surrounding Tame in ambushes the government attributes to the FARC.
For some of Tame’s residents who sat in the audience, hearing from demobilised FARC fighters wanting to reintegrate back into society and turn the page on their past lives without facing any punishment or jail time was a bitter pill to swallow.
One local shopkeeper in the audience leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m disgusted by this vacuous show. The FARC have maimed children in this town because of their landmines. Children in this very audience have become orphans because of them. They act like they are innocent, like they haven’t done anything wrong. And I haven’t heard one word of remorse. They should be asking us for forgiveness. This is no way to build peace.”
It’s not uncommon to hear such views, especially in communities where the FARC have long wreaked violence. And while that resentment and unwillingness to forgive lasts, any possible lasting peace still seems like a long way off.
Segura says she is a victim of Colombia’s conflict because she joined the FARC as a child and suffered as a result.
“I feel I’m a victim of the conflict. I lost a brother who was in the FARC. I also lost 22 years of my life. The best years of my life,” Segura told me, adding that she hopes to get a job one day as a nurse in a hospital and become a mother.
I asked Segura whether she thinks Colombians should forgive ex-fighters like her.
“If the FARC had killed my mother or father, I know I wouldn’t forgive the FARC chiefs. But I would forgive the rank-and-file guerrilla fighters. They’re there because they’ve been given orders and have been tricked into joining the guerrillas,” she told me.
Along with public events like the one in Tame, the government runs other campaigns to urge FARC fighters to lay down their weapons.
There are commercials during key televised football matches and leaflets dropped by military planes over the jungle canopy. Local radio ads say: “Government troops are in the area. There is another life. Demobilisation is the way out.”
The government says such tactics are working. Over the past three years, 3,500 FARC fighters have given up their weapons, latest government figures show.
But perhaps the biggest challenge the government faces is not persuading rebels to desert but convincing more Colombians to forgive ex-fighters like Segura and accept them back into society.