Children are on the frontline in Colombia’s escalating civil conflict
‘Francisco is 13. He is so shy he cannot look at me as we talk, always fiddling and tapping his foot. Hard to imagine how he killed a policeman with a hand grenade a year ago. He fled the guerrillas because he wanted to see his mum. . .’
This description by the BBC’s Jeremy McDermott from an article featured recently on Newsnight offers one image of the civil conflict that has been raging in Colombia for many decades. It is difficult to know exactly what to make of it. For their parts, the FARC and the ELN claim they do not use child soldiers (technically defined in International Law as those under the age of 15), whilst in its 1998 report on the subject, Human Rights Watch (HRW) specifically only accused them, along with the Colombian government, of using child soldiers under the age of 18 (as do the British and US armies).
By contrast, it reported that children as young as eight had been seen patrolling with paramilitary units. More likely, Francisco belonged to one of the urban militias, extensions of the gangs or bandas that have come to dominate many of the poor barrios in Colombia’s cities. Regardless of how Francisco came to end up in the Bogotá house where he was interviewed, his experience is one part the overall picture of brutality and deprivation that dominate the lives of children growing up in this war-torn country.
‘Gerson was killed on May 4. He had committed a robbery using a toy gun, but the man he robbed was a real criminal with criminal friends. Some time later a car drew up, a man called him over to the car and stabbed Gerson through the window. He died in the street.’
This second, equally emotive story is far more indicative of the plight of so many of Colombia’s children and illustrates a dimension of the situation much less familiar to audiences who only know of Colombia through drug trafficking and the guerrilla war. Gerson was one of thousands of street children or gamines who scratch a living in the urban sprawl of Colombia’s cities. It is very hard to know how many gamines there are, as these disposable children fall through the gaps of the statistics, but the charity Let the Children Live! counted several hundred sleeping rough in Medellín’s city centre on one night in 1999. Children can be seen amid the pollution at every set of traffic lights in the major cities, hawking soft drinks, begging and displaying the amazing skills of juggling they have acquired in lieu of education and the prospect of a brighter future.
These street children are the product of the appalling levels of poverty and neglect that characterise the cities, conditions that grow increasingly more acute as the slums are swelled by those displaced by the armed conflict in the countryside. It is estimated that some 2 million internal refugees have been created over the last 15 years, with at least 300,000 displaced in 2001. According to official figures, 52% of those displaced are under the age of 18. Amid the squalor social cohesion disintegrates and children are forced out of their homes.
Beside the rigors of living rough and the prevalence of solvent abuse, these children are physically extremely vulnerable and must make up a substantial proportion of Colombia’s enormous murders rate (38,000 in 2001, up from 30,000 in 2000), 84% of which are unrelated to the armed conflict. Many of these murders of gamines are related to the state of virulent gang warfare that characterises the poor barrios, often carried out by other children, but others are the result of ‘social cleansing’. This situation is so serious that HRW devoted a special report to it in 1994, in which they allege the involvement of government forces and site community leaders who have accused police agents of selling weapons to men who kill children with police complicity.
The situation for Colombia’s poor youth is further exacerbated by the continual withdrawal of state resources, spurred on by the dictates of the IMF while 40% of government spending goes on servicing the country’s crippling debt burden. The cuts have generally hit education and service provision hard. For instance, when we spoke to representatives of the Community Mothers (featured in the last bulletin) in Cali in March, we discovered that they had not received their minimal state payments for three months. These women provide care for hundreds of thousands of children beneath primary-school age to women who desperately need to be out at work. Their services are essential for keeping more children off the streets.
With the government’s unilateral pullout from peace negotiations with both of Colombias’s main guerrilla groups this year and president elect Alvaro Uribe’s call for total war, the crisis facing Colombia’s children can only become ever more extreme. More refugees will put further pressure on a system that exceeded breaking point long ago, while the increasing levels of violence will echo at every level. Those working among Colombia’s disposable children, such as members of Let the Children Live!, have already noticed a decline. A spokesperson for the charity explained that where in the past among gang violence it was commonest to merely inflict a wound, the intention more and more often now is to kill.