BOGOTA (AlertNet) - When she was nine years old, Sofia* remembers being “treated like a queen” by rebel fighters who had recruited her into a guerrilla group.
But the regal treatment was short-lived. Rebel soldiers beat and raped her, sometimes forcing the girl to take showers in front of male combatants.
“They (guerrillas) did not care how old we were. I would cry all the time. Because they saw me cry, they would hit me very hard. They would say: ‘Here you go. Now you have something to cry about,’” Sofia said.
“It was a childhood I do not wish for anybody,” said 15-year-old Sofia, who managed to escape after five years in rebel ranks.
Sofia’s is one of several testimonies from former child soldiers in Colombia published in a recent report by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of international non-government organisations, following its two field visits to Colombia last year.
In its report, Watchlist says the Colombian government has not done enough to protect children from violence during the country’s nearly 50-year armed conflict.
It is estimated there are at least 5,000 child soldiers in rebel ranks, many in Colombia’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The government is also failing to give adequate care to the thousands of former child soldiers who have suffered sexual abuse, Watchlist says. The FARC is known to use girls as sex slaves.
“Some of the most hidden victims of sexual violence are girls associated with armed groups, who are frequently subjected to rape, forced abortion, and forced use of methods of contraception…,” the report said. “ ... even if survivors of sexual violence overcome their fears of reporting violations, medical and psycho-social care is often unavailable for them.”
In recent years, children have faced a heightened risk of being recruited by illegal armed groups, says Watchlist. Most at risk are children from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living in Colombia’s remote jungle areas, where rebels tend to have more power because the state military's presence is weak and sporadic there.
The FARC is on an aggressive recruitment drive to prop up their dwindling ranks – down roughly half from a high of around 19,000 in the 1990’s. This comes after a series of recent defeats at the hands of government forces, prompting record numbers of rebel fighters to desert.
“The pressure on FARC to recruit more troops has forced them to step up their recruitment campaigns. It’s easier to get children. They use tricks and force to recruit kids,” Yvonne Kemper, the report’s author, told AlertNet in a telephone interview from New York.
“The FARC is being much more strategic in the way it is recruiting children. There’s a certain level of sophistication in the way they recruit kids,” said Kemper, a researcher at Watchlist. “They use children to recruit children. That’s something we haven’t seen much of before. Attractive girls are being exploited to lure teenage boys into joining.”
She added the FARC are known to survey villages in rural areas to determine how many children are in each family and their ages in order to recruit them once they are old enough to be useful to them.
The rebels commonly use children as messengers, porters, spies and cooks. Children are also trained to use assault rifles, grenades, mortars and to plant home-made landmines.
With the poverty rate at around 60 percent and few jobs available in rural areas, children are drawn to join rebel armies by false promises of adventure, food and money. Many also join to escape sexual and/or physical abuse at home.
In their strongholds, rebel groups hold propaganda meetings in schools and public squares to lure children into their ranks.
“In Colombia, the seemingly voluntary nature by which children join armed groups and the horrific crimes they are forced to commit, have made it difficult for the public to accept them as victims of the war who are in need of protection,” the report said.
While the government has implemented laws and policies to improve the rights of children affected by the armed conflict, the care provided at government-run foster homes and reintegration programmes is poor, Watchlist says.
Since 1999, nearly 5,000 former child soldiers have been put through such state programmes.
“The reintegration program lacks funding to provide enough aid and skills training to children to provide a viable alternative to joining armed groups or criminal gangs,” the report said.
* Sofia’s name has been changed