Giving Child-Soldiers a New Lease on Life

Interview With President of Colombia’s Episcopal Conference

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TUNJA, Colombia, AUG. 30, 2005 ( Rehabilitating the child-soldiers of Colombia is no easy task.

So says Tunja’s Archbishop Luis Augusto Castro Quiroga, 63, the president of the Colombian episcopal conference, in this interview with the Vatican agency Fides.

Q: The numbers given by human rights associations oscillate between 11,000 and 14,000 children in arms. Is this figure realistic?

Archbishop Castro Quiroga: It might be a bit high, because armed organizations have a total number of members not higher than 20,000, but the majority are not child-soldiers.

Perhaps if we added all those involved in the conflict, such as self-defense units, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] and the National Liberation Army [ELN], we might reach a figure that, though seemingly inflated, might come close to reality.

In regard to paramilitary groups and guerrillas, data of the Colombian Church reveals that some 6,000 children are in fact enrolled. Clearly, it is very difficult to obtain concrete data.

Q: There is talk of many different forms of violence against children. Is this really the case?

Archbishop Castro Quiroga: There are many cases of violence against children. In the first place is the clear fact that they are forced to be in a guerrilla movement.

For this reason, children who are in the guerrilla movement are not considered part of an armed uprising, but simply victims of the same war, and when they are arrested, they begin a process of re-education, not a prison process.

They are also victims for many other reasons, as they are obliged to kill, and are unaware of the value of another’s life. They are victims because they are obliged to lose contact with their own families, to suffer sexual abuses, as occurs especially in the case of girls.

They are victims because they have been deprived of the possibilities of formation and education. They simply learn to use arms. The gun supplants the maternal figure, it replaces the mother, a factor of security of identity, of a future. They are lost without a gun.

Guns give them security, as being part of the guerrilla movement, they know they cannot trust anyone. They are victims because in the guerrilla atmosphere they mistrust everything, they cannot and do not know how to confide in anyone. They have always received orders and do not know how to act independently.

Q: What is the rehabilitation process of a child-soldier?

Archbishop Castro Quiroga: The rehabilitation of child-soldiers is more complicated than if they were adults. It begins with de-mobilization, namely, with the guerrilla or paramilitary groups handing in their arms and, among them, there are so many children!

This process must be followed by another called reinsertion, education, which is very difficult, but it must be done, otherwise they end up as common delinquents.

They have learned to use arms, to kill, which they speak about with great naturalness as if it had been a game. They have lost the ethical meaning and the meaning of life.

We have a reinsertion center here and we see these problems every day. I will tell you, for example, about a recent case: that of a girl for whom it was difficult to send to a hairdresser because she had already lost her femininity.

Q: What results have long-distance adoptions given?

Archbishop Castro Quiroga: I am not an expert on the topic of long-distance adoptions, but I know they are very positive.

Q: Is there any hope of something changing for these child-soldiers?

Archbishop Castro Quiroga: Among the main achievements is that, for the first time in Colombia, thought is being given to the victims of violence.

Up to now the state was only interested in identifying the violent one and deciding on the number of years of punishment he should receive. Now, instead, thought is being given to helping the victims of violence, including a special fund for this purpose.

In Colombia, there are 3 million displaced people, that is, people who had to migrate to save their lives. Of these, 1 million are children, and once they are displaced they find it difficult to return to study and to reintegrate in the society that receives them, which often regards them with mistrust.

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