After 52 years of war and multiple failed attempts to secure peace, on 12 November last year Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos addressed the nation.

“This new accord allows us to work together as a nation… to reconcile ourselves, to make use of new opportunities for growth and progress,” Santos said after signing a peace deal with Rodrigo Londoño, leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest rebel group.

FARC, an armed offshoot of the communist party, was founded in 1964 with a goal of tackling vast inequality in Colombia. In the same year, the Marxist-inspired National Liberation Army (ELN) also came together.

The two left-wing groups have been engaged in fighting with various government and security forces and right-wing paramilitaries over the years - the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) the largest among them.

The five-decade conflict, fought predominantly in rural areas, is the longest-running armed insurgency in the Western Hemisphere.

It has left more than 220,000 people dead, forcibly displaced a staggering 6.8 million and seen an estimated 11,000 child soldiers recruited by the FARC since 1975 and thousands more by other groups.

Similar to many conflicts where children are exploited, some joined groups 'voluntarily', while others were forcibly recruited; some were used to participate directly in combat, others as cooks, spies and messengers.

On 15 August, the FARC's last weapons were handed over, formally sealing the UN-backed disarmament with Santos declaring 'the conflict truly over' and the demobilisation of its remaining members and under-age soldiers (numbers are unclear), continues. 

Understanding the complex nature of Colombia’s long conflict and the factors which have pushed thousands of its youth into conflict is the focus of a new novel by Rusty Young.

Famed for his 2004 book from within a Bolivian prison, Marching Powder, Young, who spent eight years in Colombia during the 2000s, is now set to release Colombiano.

Described as ‘historical fiction’, Colombiano is based on interviews with more than 40 former child solders in the country between 2007 and 2011 and brings ‘the reality of Colombia’s child soldiers to the world’s attention’, Young says.

We spoke with the Australian author (pictured below) about his new novel, what life is like for Colombia’s under-age combatants and how he thinks November’s peace agreement will impact its returning child soldiers.

What is the inspiration behind Colombiano?

I was working for the US government in counter-terrorism and their anti-kidnapping initiative. As we rescued hostages they told us they were being held by 12-year-olds from rural areas and families of peasant farmers.

When holding a hostage, it takes a lot of logistics and many troops– the FARC, for example, would usually have around fifteen guards at one time and they didn’t want to use their most skilled soldiers and so often children were deployed instead.

I was curious what would motivate a child. What horrific life do they have that they think joining an armed group is a step up?

How did you go about meeting and interviewing these children?

The Colombian government has a demobilisation programme – if children in groups either handed themselves in or if they were captured, they would go into the programme.

I started interviewing these children in such programmes across the country. In many cases, the government put them in half-way houses and mixed children from different armed groups into one dormitory.

It was heart wrenching to hear their stories but uplifting in a sense to see how resilient they were and the way they could bounce back.

They come from poor backgrounds in the first place and have experienced incredible trauma and have often witnessed or taken part in torture. I assumed they would be scarred but was amazed at how resilient many of them were.

I wanted to capture both the horror of their stories and their backgrounds, whilst also highlighting their incredible resilience.

The main character in your novel joined an armed group voluntarily. Was this common among those you interviewed?

I believe at its peak around 11,000 to 14,000 children were involved in the conflict – some as combatants but many as spies, cooks or messengers – and I would say the majority joined voluntarily.

There was no age minimum to join. Both groups [FARC and paramilitaries] would only accept children big and strong enough to carry a 40-pound (18kg) pack and fire an AK47.

There were exceptions when the children were homeless or desperate to join. The youngest I met had joined at aged 8, running away from an abusive home. He was allowed to do camp duties until big enough for military training. 

When they enter, all are given military training and then are assigned roles - maybe as combatants or in the camp or as spies.

Children are less detectable [as spies] because they are viewed as being more innocent. These children were made to sit on street corners and send messages, because people didn’t usually stop them. They started doing these tasks just for money or sweets. Some were unaware of what they were involved in.

A common theme with many of those I interviewed though was this sense of revenge. Children were joining rival groups to avenge a death and so it became a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

How did life differ for those who joined the FARC and others in paramilitary groups?

In the case of the FARC they didn’t get paid – they supposedly joined for communist principles and to promote a fairer society. But in the paramilitaries children received a wage.

Typically, the paramilitaries would send children a long way from their town to avoid them being recognised or to prevent attacks against their family members.

They assigned children an alias and a pay number [for their salary] so if something happened they were not able to identify other members of the group. Children in paramilitary groups were allowed to leave to visit their families. It was more like a job and after four years of service, in theory, you could ask to leave.

Whereas the FARC would tell them, “forget your family, we are your new family now,” and if they tried to leave they would be executed. The FARC was revolution or death.

It is said that around one-third of Colombia’s child soldiers were female. What was life like for girls in armed groups?   

About 30-35% of the child soldiers in the FARC were female; in the AUC it was more like 15-20%.

Pregnancy was theoretically illegal in these groups as it removes the female combatant from carrying out their main duties. Women [and girls] were forced to take contraceptive injections and if they did become pregnant, their children were ‘outsourced ’ to others to care for them. But you did sometimes see generations of families staying in these groups.

By far the most common practice for girls in the FARC who fell pregnant was a forced abortion, usually conducted in a dirty rural clinic and sometimes in the jungle. They could be tried for Crimes Against the Revolution for getting pregnant, even if the reason was the contraceptive failing.

It was only in the cases of the socias (partners) of high commanders that a limited exception might be made. The girl would be allowed to have the baby, who would be left with campesino sympathisers (subsistence famers), until he/she was old enough to join the ranks.

This was very much the exception - forced abortion was by far the most common result. Many pregnant girls who didn't want to abort or give up their baby tried to escape and were then executed.

One of the strongly enforced statutes in the AUC and FARC is that members have rights and one of them is to be free from sexual abuse. So if girls received unwanted attention, they could report it and the offender could be executed.

But it really depended on the groups they were in. There were still incidents [of abuse] and complete abuses of power. In some groups there was ‘competition’ for girls, and so a hierarchy for who got the prettiest young girl. There were cases reported where 13-year-old girls were with 45-year-old commanders.

What are some of the specific reintegration challenges faced by former child soldiers in Colombia?

If we don’t help these children when coming out of the war they could easily become criminals on the streets or in gangs so there is really a moral obligation to help.

When they try to find work or go to school, many are facing a difficult process to reintegrate back into their home communities.

Effectively they are made into wardens of the state. They are put into care, either to attend school in government houses or with a foster family, but far from their own region.

The cities in Colombia are strongly held by the government and so the children are safe and anonymous there.

In the government houses, curfews are in place and they are given accommodation, food, psycho-social sessions and are made to attend school. They have to learn how to be children again, learn how to trust again and learn some basic life skills.

But they cannot continue in the programme after they turn 18 and so the government and NGOs need to provide more resources to support these children in the longer-term.

How hopeful are you that November’s peace agreement will last?

I never saw the peace agreement coming. It will be interesting to see how many children, now that the FARC have disarmed, will come out and enter government programmes.

The civil conflict began because of political reasons and social injustice, but ended up becoming a cycle of revenge. Fundamentally the conflicts in Colombia are underwritten and financed by cocaine trafficking. I think as long as there is demand for cocaine, there will always be a degree of violence and conflict in Colombia.

Now that the war is over children may no longer be recruited by armed groups. However, criminal gangs, whether cartels or street gangs, are always looking for soldiers. As along as poverty, injustice and drug empires continue, children will always be recruited.

 

Colombiano is published through Penguin Random House Australia and 10% of royalties from the book will go to Colombian Children’s Foundation.