The Guerrillas’ Child Armies
By Dialogo April 01, 2011It is incredible that situations like this, which harm our children, are happening in this day and age. So, what's going on with the International Organizations that were created to defend and protect children? Why aren't they vigorously performing their work?
The internal armed conflict in Colombia is increasingly destroying the lives of children, according to nongovernmental organizations working to protect minors in the country. The guerrilla war being carried out by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is not only affecting the livelihood of children in the remote areas where it operates, it is also enlisting them into its ranks as child soldiers. Likewise, the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path follows similar practices, abusing Peruvian children through recruitment and violence.
Seventeen thousand minors are involved in the conflict in 2011 according to Nuestra niñez Tarea sin fin (Our Children an Endless Task), a Colombian non-governmental organization, or NGO. Another NGO, the International Tribunal for Children affected by War and Poverty, estimates that 6,000 to 11,000 minors in Colombia were enlisted as child soldiers in 2009. Half are believed to be among the ranks of the FARC.
“They are using children as young as 6 for intelligence work, laying anti-personnel mines and transporting explosives,” said Sergio Tapia, director of the State’s tribunal. These figures put Colombia in fifth place among countries where illegal armed forces recruit minors, according to Colombian magazine Cambio. Figures from the Colombian Humanitarian Aid for the Demobilized Program, or PAHD, however, reveal that the average recruitment age in the country is actually between 6 and 14 years old.
According to León valencia, director of the NGO Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (New Rainbow Corporation), terrorist groups are recruiting these youngsters to offset their militant casualties and defections. “New narco-paramilitaries need cheaper labor, and the easiest to exploit, use and discard are children,” according to a report by Colombian NGO Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (Human Rights and Displacement Consultancy). The fact that these youngsters come from social backgrounds with little or no opportunities influences their decision to join the guerrilla ranks, seeing it as their only option for escape.
Natalia Springer, a Colombian political analyst, reveals in the analysis “Combatant Prisoners” that more than 70 percent of demobilized minors interviewed confirmed having had no access to land, education or money in order to create a future for themselves. In fact, more than 80 percent of those interviewed stated that they received only a very basic formal education before joining the guerrillas. “The simple fact of living in an area of violence, being in a dysfunctional family environment subject to poverty, displacement and conflict over wealth, make children easy prey for war,” said Springer.
A related consequence of recruitment is the forced prostitution of girls, Mauricio Romero of the New Rainbow Corporation stated in a report published in the Colombian magazine Semana. According to the ombudsman’s office of Colombia, 92 percent of girls who become pregnant while part of the guerrilla organizations are forced to have abortions. In a video published by the Colombian Ministry of Defense, a demobilized girl, with her face covered to protect her identity, said she joined the ranks of the FARC before the age of 14 and described the abuses she suffered. “There were these three guys, and the three of them grabbed me and raped me,’’ she said
Later, she added, “They injected me with something and I started to feel these really horrible, horrible pains,” she said. “I started bleeding, I got ill … then they took me to a room where they performed an abortion on me. That’s nothing … after they took out the baby, they punished me severely.”
Despite agreements signed in the late 1990s by the illegal Colombian armed groups the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the FARC promising not to recruit minors under the age of 16 and 15, respectively, reports show that this practice not only continues but also is on the rise.
Growing abuses by the Shining Path in Peru
In Peru, the outlook is equally as bleak, with the recruitment of minors showing a similar rising trend despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child having been in effect since 1990. In addition, Peru is a signatory of the optional Protocol on the Convention on the Rights of the Child concerning child participation in armed conflicts, promoted by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Despite these agreements, terrorist groups ignore these international protections. The Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path, or SL, has approximately 300 people captive, including more than 70 children, according to the intelligence directorate of the Peruvian Ministry of the Interior.
Various media in the country have also reported extensively on cases of SL kidnapping children. These children are abducted from their homes in Andean towns and forced to live in the jungle around the valley of the Apurimac and Ene rivers, or vRAE, to be indoctrinated into the Maoist ideology and terrorist activities, according to Peruvian news site RPP Noticias. The articles and videos show children marching in unison to the sound of Maoist chants, while carrying weapons bigger than they are.
In January of 2010, a joint operation between the Peruvian Armed Forces Joint Command, or CCFFAA, and the VRAE Special Command resulted in the rescue of a 9-year-old child from the hands of a SL camp in the VRAE. “Carlitos,” whose real identity has been protected, was found in extremely poor condition, having endured more than three years of physical and mental torture while in captivity. His body showed the marks of brutal beatings and burns to his feet and hands, inflicted by a SL militant known as “Camarada Sergio,” who was also captured during the operation.
CCFFAA authorities transferred the boy to a children’s home run by the National Comprehensive Program for Family Welfare, or INABIF, since he did not know who his family was or where he came from. The home ordered that the boy receive urgent psychological care to treat the after effects of his experiences. In a TV report by Punto Final, INABIF psychologist Gianfranco vacchelli explained that Carlitos couldn’t put his experiences into words when he arrived, though he managed to depict them in drawings. The color red (for blood) was prominent in his drawings, which showed machetes and mutilated children, as well as images of his kidnapper killing another child and cutting off his limbs.
Given the national outcry against the recruitment of minors in the country, UNICEF condemned illegal armed forces for their exploitation of minors, the international NGO Corresponsal de Paz (Correspondent of Peace) reported. In addition, in support of the VRAE Special Command, CCFFAA launched a campaign to rescue children kidnapped by SL. While U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflicts Radhika Coomaraswamy declared in September 2009 that there were some 250,000 minors involved in conflicts around the world, the NGO Save the Children estimates that today there are some 300,000 child soldiers in Latin America alone. Likewise, Coomaraswamy emphasized that governments, international agencies and nonstate actors have made relative progress in preventing the use of minors by terrorist groups and militias and that they are now more aware of the problems associated with the protection of minors in situations of conflict.
In 2000, the U.N. General Assembly approved the optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflicts. While in 2005, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 1612 on reporting violations of children’s rights in armed conflicts.
In a speech to the U.N. Security Council in April 2009, U.N. Secretary-General Bam Ki-moon called for compliance with the international humanitarian law for the protection of minors and for all civilians. He highlighted the need to hold violators responsible: “We must send a resounding message to the world that those who commit vicious crimes against children in conflict situations will be brought to justice,” he stated.
The message is clear: New solutions are needed to counter the threats to children in conflict areas. Raising awareness, improving legal mechanisms and tools do not necessarily lead to actual change, said Coomaraswamy, who emphasized the need for action. “We have created national and international frameworks to protect the rights of children — now we need to implement them,” she said.