MEDELLIN, Colombia -- At 14, when children his age might be playing war, Hector lost a finger after an army bullet ripped through his left fist. He’d been a foot soldier in Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, for less than a year. His commanders patched him up and put him back on the frontlines.
Hector eventually escaped. And now, along with 44 other former child combatants —11 girls and 33 boys — he lives and works at a hilltop vocational school where he and the others learn trades like auto-mechanics and hairdressing, and the social skills they never needed in the jungle.
As he worked on a bed-frame in carpentry class, Hector said he’d fallen in love with studying and woodworking.
“When you’re in the FARC, you have to be resigned to following orders — never seeing your family,” he said. “All there was to do before was kill or be killed.”
The school is one of four in the country designed to get former underage combatants back on their feet. This one is supported by a local religious organization, the government and Miami’s Developing Minds Foundation, among others. The Miami Herald was allowed to visit as long as students’ names weren’t used or their faces shown. Deserting from the guerrillas can carry a death sentence, and many of these children are on the run.
Colombia’s 50-year-old civil conflict has claimed more than 220,000 lives — and dragged the vulnerable, poor and the young into its maw.
No one’s sure how many children are in the ranks of FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN, but a look at those who have escaped offers a hint.
Of the 1,064 rebel fighters who have been captured or turned themselves in this year, 255, or almost a quarter, were underage — one of them was just 10 years old. Colombia’s Family Welfare Institute has registered more than 5,000 child soldiers since 1999.
And those numbers could swell. The government and the FARC are in peace talks in Havana that could bring the conflict to an end. If negotiations are successful, as many as 19,000 guerrillas will need to be reintegrated into society.
Philippe Houdard, a Miami entrepreneur and founder of the Developing Minds Foundation, has been supporting the school in Medellin for seven years. He said programs like it are vital for the prospects of long-term peace.
“I think it will make or break the peace process,” he said of the program. “Putting down your arms is the first part of the equation, but to be able to find a place in society is the second part, and it’s just as important.”
The sprawling campus, run by the Don Bosco religious organization, feels like a well-to-do boarding school. There are hairdressing, graphic design and metal workshops. There’s a library and a swimming pool. It also has a medical center, a job-placement program and full-time psychological staff. It costs about $31,000 per month to house and train the students, the school said.
The ex-combatants share the campus with a few hundred other needy students — mainly street children, orphans and wards of the state.
But the former soldiers are different, teachers said. While many struggle with basic skills, like reading and writing, they tend to be extremely patient and obedient. On the frontline, they were used to walking for days with heavy loads on their backs. Disobeying orders was not an option.