BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Juanita Barragan was 13 when she joined Colombia’s largest rebel group to escape sexual abuse by her stepfather and beatings by her mother.
She spent about a year as a child fighter with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, before fleeing and trying to find a more normal life.
Now 26, Barragan was the youngest of 60 war victims and the first former child soldier chosen to meet government and rebel negotiators in peace talks in Cuba to end Colombia’s 50-year war that has killed 200,000 people and displaced nearly six million.
The FARC, which has tried to topple successive governments since 1964, took up arms as a Marxist group struggling against inequality. It later turned to kidnapping and drug-trafficking to finance itself and is designated a terrorist organization by the United States.
The Colombian government estimates 30 percent of FARC’s 7,000 fighters are child soldiers.
Barragan, who met the negotiators in Cuba this month, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview about risking her life as a child soldier and her hopes for peace:
“My life at home was unbearable. My stepfather started sexually abusing me when I was 8. My mother didn’t protect me ... She said I had misinterpreted my stepfather’s affection and caresses. She also used to beat me.
In the village where I grew up in the province of Tolima, the guerrillas were the authority. The government had abandoned this part of Colombia.
My mother beat me so hard once that the local guerrilla commander said he would punish her if she hit me again ... It encouraged me to run away from home when I was 13 with a guerrilla fighter. I went to a nearby village and joined the FARC.
The guerrillas spoke about a revolution which, though I didn’t feel was my fight, it made me feel part of something important. I wanted to be respected and valued. That’s what I thought I would get with the FARC. But I was wrong.
We were made into war machines. I lasted nearly a year before managing to escape. I was a rank-and-file fighter. I had to set up camp, dig trenches, learn how to use assault rifles, collect firewood, clear paths in the jungle, and cook and clean.
The guerrillas made it clear that women weren’t allowed to have children while in the FARC. They injected a birth control implant in my arm.
The worst was when I had to take part in a bank robbery. Children like me were used as human shields and were positioned at the front of the group ... I had to go into the bank, film the robbery on video, and then stuff the money into bags.
Shortly after the robbery, clashes broke out. The army started bombing the surrounding countryside ... I and a 15-year-old girl who had just joined the FARC started running for our lives. We ran and ran ... We found ourselves alone in the middle of a coffee plantation (and the army persuaded her to turn herself in, putting her in a state-run children’s homes for three years then in a juvenile correctional facility).
After that, I found a place with a non-governmental organization that helps children who have suffered in the war. It was the only place where I found happiness.
The government gave me $5,500 in compensation for having been a child soldier. I set up a stationery shop, but it was robbed and all the merchandise was stolen. I then got a job in a clothes shop to pay my way through university. I’m half way through a law degree. I want to become a lawyer so I can help children who can’t defend themselves.
I’m just another Colombian trying to survive. So it was a total surprise, and honor, to be chosen to go to Havana (with 11 others) to represent war victims.
There were mothers and sisters of people who had been murdered by the FARC, others who had been kidnapped and displaced, and a landmine victim. My aim was to give those children who are in the war and who can’t be heard, and who are invisible, a voice.
I told negotiators that if a peace agreement gets signed, children must be given special care and opportunities to move on with their lives. The FARC can’t hide the fact that they continue to recruit children and they must take responsibility.
I spoke in private with Pablo Catatumbo, a FARC leader in Havana. I told him: “Don’t accept children to fight your war. I said children are looking for refuge inside FARC ranks but they can find death instead. He told me he was sorry about what I’d gone through. If his apology was sincere I don’t know. Only God knows if his intentions were sincere or not”.
I, like other children, found myself in a position where there was no other option but to join the FARC and go to war. Neglect by the government, abandoned by your parents, poverty, abuse at home, and a lack of education, it all feeds into it.
Colombians must have faith that one day our country won’t be at war. I believe peace is possible.”
Editing by Tim Pearce and Belinda Goldsmith