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Monday, 18 September, 2000, 17:20 GMT 18:20 UK
Colombia's child warriors

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) recruit
A minor is killed every two hours in Colombia's civil conflict, but children continue to be recruited to the front lines. The BBC's Jeremy McDermott visited a secret rehabilitation centre in Bogota to meet some of Colombia's child warriors.

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.

I took part in two attacks, one on a police station and another on an army base

Adriana, 17
He fled the guerrillas because he wanted to see his mum, and could not understand why his parents greeted his return with horror and told him to give himself up to the army.

The guerrillas kill all deserters, no matter what their age.

Adriana, 17, lives with Francisco in the secret rehabilitation centre for child warriors in a quiet suburb of Bogota.

She is a veteran of five years service with the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which began when she was eleven-years-old.

FARC rebels
All deserters are killed by the rebels
"I took part in two attacks, one on a police station and another on an army base. I just remember the wounded, some of them my friends. One of them took a grenade to the chest".

She looked down at her own small frame and began to point to various points across her body.

"He was hit everywhere, there where bits of grenade all through his body. The worse thing was that he didn't die."

Child army

The National Department of Statistics estimates that at least 6000 minors are fighting in the civil conflict, and the number is growing as the war escalates.

Colombia is the source of 80% of the world's cocaine
All the kids from the rehab centre volunteered to join the guerrillas, mainly the FARC, but then most of them are from peasant families living well below the poverty line.

Francisco said his parent had urged him to join the guerrillas, "because they said I would get a good meal every day and some clothes".

The paramilitaries also use children, but more for intelligence gathering and as scouts.

They are often referred to as "little bells" by the right-wing death squads for the warning they provide.

They also have to witness the massacres and torture that are the hallmark of the strategy of paramilitary groups against suspected left-wing sympathisers.

There are literally millions of children over the last 40 years that have grown up amid horrific violence

Juan Pablo Urrutia, Family Welfare Institute
But children are not just suffering by fighting with the warring factions.

They make up the majority of the estimated two million people that have been displaced by the civil conflict in the last 15 years.

Last year alone 180,000 children were displaced, chased from their homes by the civil conflict, often seeing members of their families murdered by the warring factions.

Kidnap capital

Colombia has long been the kidnap capital of the world. Now a new twist has been added: the kidnapping of minors, at an average of almost one a day so far this year.

Ruins of Colombian town
The conflict has left much of Columbia in ruins
"The kidnappers have switched to taking children as they know they will get the ransoms much faster.

A parent will do almost anything to get a child back, and the kidnappers have been using this to lucrative effect," said Dr Hernando Ortego of the government's anti-kidnap department.

The problems will not end with peace, should it ever come to Colombia. After 37 years of civil conflict there are three generations of children traumatised, witness to a violence almost beyond comprehension.

"How do we show the young that violence is not a real option to solve matters.

"There are literally millions of children over the last 40 years that have grown up amid horrific violence. You cannot just rub it out," said Juan Pablo Urrutia, the Director of the Family Welfare Institute.

It is certainly not over for Adriana. She will live with her experiences, and fear for the rest of her life. The FARC kill deserters, no questions, no defence.

"I can't really leave here," she said looking out of the window.

"I am marked, and cannot walk out on the streets as there are guerrillas everywhere and they will kill me. I just can't relax, I cannot visit my family, because it's so dangerous."

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See also:

17 Sep 00 | Americas
Fierce fighting in Colombia
03 Sep 00 | Americas
Rebel attack in Colombia
09 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Children urge action on young soldiers
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