Today is International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers.
Finally, today, after two and a half years of official negotiations between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, there is a break-through: the FARC have agreed to not recruit children under 17 years of age.
The FARC said their policy was to recruit members between the ages of 15 and 30 years of age, according to what FARC leaders decided in 1982 at the National Conference of guerrillas.
The word “recruitment” needs to be defined.
Long before minors put on guerrilla fatigues, they are, by default, already “recruited.”
At first, children are asked to be informers for the group.
Then, they are made to deliver confidential messages.
To transport sensitive materials.
To guide forces through their terrain.
They are told to loiter in police stations and army bases.
To report back on what is said.
I believe when children perform these activities, they are already recruited.
According to the Ministry of Family Welfare, in 15 years, 5,708 minors have been demobilized and rehabilitated.
According to the Ministry of Defense, in 14 years, 4,067 minors have demobilized (2,648 from FARC and 676 from ELN). Seventy percent of them were between 16 and 17 years old when they demobilized.
I believe the numbers are greater; and the ages in which they formed part of the group are younger, much, much younger.
Sixty-five percent of all recruitment happens between the ages of 6 and 14, according to Natalia Springer, a social scientist and expert on child soldiers.
It can take decades of therapy for teen-agers to admit that they grew up in the group.
The stress of life in war can cause a kind of amnesia, and to survive in the armed group, children numb their feelings. It is easier for children to regard, per se, the five or six years in the group as a mere six months. That means a 16 or 17 year-old officially joined, and so put on the fatigues, at the age of 11 or 12.
But long before they are 11 or 12 years old, they are already carrying out the tasks described above.
The armed groups are part of the children’s socialization; an older brother, an uncle, a father may be in the group, and children grow up alongside them. The FARC have existed since 1964, and there are now third or fourth generation combatants. For many, joining the group may be a right of passage, of sorts.
In many parts of Colombia, children see the FARC and other groups walking freely down their streets, Ak-47’s slung over their shoulders, grenades in their pockets.
More than 17,000 children have gone missing in Colombia, and it is believed most of them were taken by armed groups, and made into child soldiers. Their families did not see them again until they appeared years later in mass graves or unmarked graves in cemeteries.
Colombia’s Institute of Forensic Medicine has begun trying to identify the remains of children from mass graves, hoping to find answers for some of the families.
The government estimates there remain 40,000 children at risk of being recruited. The most at risk of recruitment are the children of indigenous and rural farmers, many of whom are illiterate.