Farc's child soldiers start new life after peace deal

Leftist rebels turn over children to Red Cross as part of agreement ending decades of civil war in Colombia

Damaris picked up her first AK-47 rifle when she was 14 years old as a new member of Colombia’s leftist Farc rebels. She had barely turned 16 earlier this year when she was wounded in a skirmish with Colombian government forces, taking shrapnel from a grenade in the neck and torso.

Damaris says she joined the Farc of her own free will, sneaking out of the rural home where she lived with her parents and five brothers and sisters. “I like carrying a rifle. I’m proud to be a guerrilla,” she told the Guardian in a recent interview in a jungle camp.

But Damaris’s presence in the ranks of an armed group is a grave violation of human rights and international humanitarian law and as part of a deal to end Colombia’s 52-year civil war, the Farc at the weekend freed 13 child soldiers from their ranks, turning them over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC said in a statement on Saturday that the minors were in good health and were being transported to a temporary shelter under the supervision of the United Nations Children’s Fund.

All the Farc’s 7,000 members are preparing to demobilise as part of the historic peace deal to be formally signed on 26 September and put to a vote on 2 October. But the handover of the minors was considered a humanitarian measure ahead of the final deal.

The ICRC did not identify the children released, saying that discretion was a priority to protect the minors’ rights. It was unclear whether Damaris, who knew she would eventually be sent back to her family as part of the peace accords, was among the children handed over at the weekend.

The Farc has long been accused of forced recruitment of minors, though the exact number of underage fighters is unknown. The guerrilla group said earlier this year that they had only 21 members under the age of 15; the defence ministry said in May it calculated there were some 170 members under 18.

Since 1999, Colombia’s family welfare agency has taken in at least 6,000 child soldiers who either were captured from illegal armed groups or deserted. Sixty per cent had belonged to the Farc, according to official figures.

Forced recruitment has been one of the primary drivers of internal displacement, with families fleeing from rural areas to protect their children from being forced or lured into the rebel ranks.

Damaris’s parents instead resorted to locking her in a room of their house when she announced she was thinking of joining up with the Farc unit that frequented her village. “I had a fight with my dad and he beat me and locked me in a room,” she said. “I escaped.”

Eight months after joining the Farc she went to visit her parents. “My parents cried and told me that it wasn’t good for me, but I had already decided to stay in the guerrillas,” she said.

Damaris and other child soldiers like her are considered victims rather than criminals. But those who recruited them will have to answer for the crime before a special tribunal that will be set up as part of the peace accord. If they confess, they will be eligible for reduced sentences to be served in as yet undefined alternatives to prison. Failure to confess could land them in jail for anywhere between five and 10 years.

The minors meanwhile will enter a special programme for reintegrating them into civil life, including receiving psychological and educational support. Some, though not all, may reunite with their families.

Damaris said she would like to go back home and take advantage of the help she will get from the government to study to be a nurse. Her mother suffers from poor circulation in her legs. “As a nurse, I could help her,” Damaris said.


Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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