By Anastasia Moloney
Over the past decade, a stepped-up government military offensive against Colombia’s two main rebel groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) – has prompted growing numbers of guerrilla fighters to desert and lay down their arms.
On average, 10 fighters demobilise every day in Colombia.
Since 2003, nearly 55,000 combatants from illegal armed groups have given up their weapons, including some 30,000 fighters from right-wing paramilitary groups, who disarmed during a peace process with the previous government.
The Colombian government says helping former fighters to return to civilian life is a top priority.
It runs a reintegration programme that pays ex-fighters a monthly allowance of up to $270, providing they attend school and or university, free psychological counseling and vocational training schemes.
Colombia’s reintegration process is regarded as an important step towards reconciliation and reducing the high levels of violence caused by the country’s five decades of armed conflict.
But demobilised child soldiers and fighters - many of whom have spent an average of eight years in the ranks of illegal armed groups - face significant obstacles, Alejandro Eder, Colombia’s chief advisor on reintegration, tells me.
Eder says few Colombians are ready to forgive the atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict.
“In the Colombian case, you have 50 years of violence - of horrible violence. There’s been violence against civilians, internal displacements, kidnapping and massacres. Many Colombians aren’t too keen on forgiving the people who they identify as the main perpetrators of these crimes,” explains Eder, who heads the government reintegration programme.
“Achieving reconciliation is very hard, especially in a post-conflict situation like the Colombian one, where there’s still violence going on. Many people would rather have revenge. And sometimes revenge is much easier than forgiving, and it’s also much easier than giving someone a second chance,” Eder says.
JOBS HARD TO COME BY
With an unemployment rate at nearly 11 percent, finding a job is a difficult task for most Colombians. But it’s even harder for ex-fighters.
The average recruitment age for combatants is 16 years old, which means few have completed high school. Many find they have to go back to school before looking for work.
Sixty percent of the 40,000 or so former fighters who have joined the government reintegration programme are illiterate, while over half were sexually abused as children, Eder tells me.
Only 8,500 participants have found jobs in the formal sector over the past five years.
“The biggest challenge is getting these people economically integrated,” Eder says.
Former fighters face discrimination and are often stigmatised by Colombians and potential employers, who view them as hardened criminals who don’t deserve government help and a second chance.
“People in Colombia are still scared of demobilised persons, and they turn their backs on them,” Eder says. “The main challenge we have is breaking down the stigma that Colombians associate with the demobilised population.”
Under the reintegration programme, ex-fighters are entitled to receive government support and financial benefits for up to six and a half years.
The government provides one psychologist for every 100 ex-combatants, and counselling is on offer about twice a month to help heal the traumas of war.
But for some ex-fighters, the lack of jobs and temptation to earn more money working for criminal gangs means they end up re-arming.
The government estimates that between 10 to 15 percent of the 36,000 ex-combatants who have gone through its programme since 2003 are involved in crime or have been recycled back into the conflict.
NO PEACE WITHOUT FORGIVENESS
Eder emphasises that fighters who have committed crimes against humanity are not allowed to take part in the reintegration programme, but instead face prosecution.
Yet few paramilitary warlords have yet to be convicted of any crimes against humanity, and many families are still seeking justice for abuses and searching for the country’s 50,000 missing people.
Against this background, are Colombians ready to forgive?
“There’s unwillingness and there’s reluctance,” Eder says. “All Colombians, including myself, are in some way victims - directly or indirectly - of the violence. But if you’re unwilling to forgive then there’s never going to be peace.”
I ask Eder, a former investment banker, what he has learned as head of the reintegration programme in the last two years.
It’s been “an eye-opening experience”, he says. “Some of the demobilised fighters who were forcibly recruited when they were eight years old, what fault did they have that they were stolen from their homes by the guerrillas and paramilitaries?”
“You start to understand their side of the story. You start to understand that the line between victim and victimiser isn’t black and white. It’s shades of grey,” he says.
Much is at stake, Eder believes. If Colombians aren’t willing to accept ex-combatants back into their communities and give them work, the prospect of peace will remain elusive.
“Colombians need to realise that, by giving these people a second chance, they are benefiting themselves. Why? Because if we let them come back into society, Colombia will be a more peaceful society,” Eder explains.
“You can’t become an apologist for them - many of them have committed absolutely terrible crimes. But I think that if we want to build peace in Colombia, they need a second chance.”