BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Reuniting Colombia’s former child soldiers with their parents is a key challenge the country faces in helping children traumatised by the war to return to civilian life, according to the head of the government’s child protection agency.
Illegal armed groups from both sides of Colombia’s 50-year war - leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries - along with drug-running criminal gangs have all recruited and used children in their ranks, the government says.
“The big, big difficulty we have is reuniting children with their families. At the moment, we can’t do this because if we bring back these children to their families, they become military targets (of illegal armed groups) or we put them in situations of high risk,” Marco Aurelio Zuluaga, head of Colombia’s child and family protection agency (ICBF) told journalists in Bogota on Tuesday.
Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), forcibly recruits more children into its ranks than any other illegal armed group in the country, the government says.
Since 1999, the child welfare agency has looked after a total of 5,417 former child combatants - from all armed groups - who either gave themselves up, often after escaping, or were rescued by government security forces usually after combats with rebels.
Thousands more child soldiers from the FARC rebel group could become part of government-run rehabilitation programmes if the Havana peace talks between the government and FARC finally end the conflict that has killed 220,000 people and displaced more than 5 million, according to a 2013 study by Colombia's National Centre for Historical Memory.
“The first action to take in any possible post-conflict scenario is to get children, who have belonged to illegal armed groups, together again with their families,” Zuluaga said.
“We want to develop a strategy that allows a child who leaves the war to immediately reestablish a link with their families. We believe that’s the most important thing we can do for these children. Because if you bring back a child to their home and family, while of course helping families receive back their children, that child will have a better chance to heal their wounds through the love that a family can give.”
Rights groups have documented rebel groups using children as messengers, informants, porters, and cooks, as well as training them to fight in combat, use assault rifles, grenades and mortars, and plant homemade landmines. Girls are also used as sex slaves for rebel commanders and undergo forced abortions, according to Human Rights Watch.
Last year, 342 former child combatants from various armed groups entered ICBF-run reintegration programmes and foster homes where they are completing high school and learning job skills such as carpentry. Nearly 60 percent of former child soldiers have only a primary education, ICBF says.
Many former child combatants come from poor and remote Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living along Colombia’s Pacific coast and the country’s southern provinces, where fighting between the rebels and government forces is concentrated.
With few jobs available in these rural areas and a poverty rate at around 60 percent – double that of Colombia’s cities - children are drawn to join rebel armies and criminal gangs by false promises of adventure, food and money and as a way to escape domestic violence.
“We need to ensure that those families who live in extreme poverty are ready to receive their children back on a case-by-case basis,” Zuluaga said. “It’s clear that families need to be supported, as we can’t give a family that is facing hunger their child back without ensuring that there is the support in place because then the conflict won’t be in the mountains but in the family home.”