BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Some children have recurring nightmares and constant anxiety, others suffer from insomnia and low self-esteem, and find it hard to interact with their peers. Other children, wounded by landmines, have had limbs amputated or are blind.
These are the mental and physical scars inflicted on children during Colombia’s 50-year-old war, according to a joint study released earlier this month by Colombia’s child protection agency (ICBF), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF).
Decades of fighting between the government, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups have killed at least 220,000 people and forced about 5 million Colombians, half of them children, to leave their homes, according to government figures.
The report examined the impact of Colombia’s conflict on 1,681 children, of whom 961 were direct victims of violence and human rights abuses, including sexual violence, forced displacement, kidnapping, forced recruitment by armed groups, the loss of a parent who was murdered or disappeared and injuries caused by landmines and improvised explosive devices.
Based on interviews with children aged between 8 and 18 from different ethnic groups, including indigenous and Afro-Colombian boys and girls, the report found more needs to be done to carry out policies tailored to help children with war-related trauma, based on their gender, the type of violence they have suffered, their ethnicity and level of education.
“The study will allow us to use information that can guide us to differentiate psychosocial services provided to boys, girls and adolescents according to how they have been affected (by the conflict) and the ethnic group to which they belong,” Katie Kerr, IOM’s head of programmes in Colombia, said in a statement. “There are important and significant differences that shed light on the psychosocial needs of children.”
Understanding the different ways in which children are affected by the war is a key part of rehabilitating war victims and promoting reconciliation among Colombians as peace talks between the government and FARC rebels continue in Cuba, experts say.
IMPACT ON CHILD SOLDIERS
The report found former child soldiers surveyed are more likely to feel guilt and to blame themselves for the violence they have witnessed or committed. They also tend to be more aggressive when compared with children who have suffered other types of war-related violence. But they are more likely to have better coping skills and be more resilient, the report said.
Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), recruits more children into its ranks than any other illegal armed group and drug-running criminal gang in the country, the report said.
Boys and girls, usually aged between 15 and 17, living in border and southern provinces where fighting between rebels and government forces is most intense, are most at risk of forced recruitment, the report said.
From 1999 to January this year, 5,252 former child soldiers entered government-run foster homes and reintegration programmes, according to Colombia’s child protection agency ICBF. The report, which will be released in full early next year, found former child soldiers feel stigmatised and discriminated against by society because of their past and find it hard to get jobs.
Children whose mothers have been killed or gone missing are more likely to be depressed, suffer anxiety and blame themselves for the violence they have experienced.
“They also show significant difficulty with social skills, such as helping and trusting others and being nice,” the report said.
Families flee their homes to stop their children being recruited into rebel groups and criminal gangs or because of direct and or indirect death threats issued by armed groups. Many are driven from their land and homes in the countryside and seek refuge in urban slum areas.
“Boys, girls and adolescents who have been displaced show more signs of being withdrawn, not being able to sleep well, anxiety and attention disorders in comparison to the general population,” the report said.
Displaced children are also more likely to be underweight for their age, have fewer years of schooling and find it difficult to envisage a positive future for themselves, the report said.