Children Trapped by Colombia’s War, Five Years After Peace Deal

PUERTO CACHICAMO, Colombia — At 13, she left house to affix the guerrillas. Now, at 15, Yeimi Sofía Vega lay in a coffin, killed throughout a navy operation ordered by her authorities.

Some of the youngest kids in her city, Puerto Cachicamo, led her funeral procession, waving small white flags as they wound previous the varsity, with its mildewed books and damaged benches, previous the shuttered well being clinic and their small wood homes.

“We don’t want bombs,” the kids chanted, marching down a dusty highway to the cemetery. “We want opportunities.”

Nearly 5 years after Colombia signed a historic peace accord with its largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s inner warfare is way from over.

Remote cities like Puerto Cachicamo have but to see the faculties, clinics and jobs the federal government promised within the settlement. Thousands of dissident FARC combatants have returned to battle, or by no means laid down their arms, and are combating rivals for management of illicit markets. Mass killings and forced displacement are once more common occurrences.

And younger individuals — trapped between an typically absent state, the aggressive recruitment of armed teams and the firepower of the navy — are as soon as once more the battle’s most weak targets.

That was evident this month, when the federal government bombed a insurgent camp in an effort to take out a high-profile dissident FARC chief identified by the alias Gentil Duarte. The camp turned out to be filled with younger individuals who had been recruited by the group — and the operation killed not less than two minors, together with Yeimi Sofía.

The protection minister, Diego Molano, blamed the rebels for the deaths, mentioning that they had been those turning adolescents into authorities targets by changing them into “machines of war.”

The phrase electrified Colombian society, with some saying Mr. Molano was being blunt however exact, and others saying it was this rhetoric — characterizing poor kids as enemies of the state, as an alternative of victims of its neglect — that was as soon as once more driving younger individuals to the guerrillas.

Child recruitment was a typical characteristic of the nation’s decades-long warfare. Now, rebels are at it once more, circling city plazas, hanging recruitment posters, passing cash to adolescents, charming the women, then convincing them to affix the struggle.

The bombing additionally raised essential questions of accountability in a rustic still grappling with atrocities dedicated by all sides throughout a battle that left not less than 220,000 lifeless: Did authorities know there have been minors on the camp? Was the assault launched anyway?

Yeimi Sofía’s hometown, Puerto Cachicamo, sits on the Guayabero River, on the intersection of the Andes Mountains, the Amazon area, and the nation’s huge plains. One of its defining traits is the close to whole absence of the state.

Cell service by no means arrived. The college, run by a nongovernmental group, solely goes to the tenth grade. The well being clinic closed when its solely nurse left amid the pandemic. The nearest metropolis is 4 hours away on a mud highway so craggy that even probably the most rugged vehicles are sometimes trapped in its muddy jaws. A experience out can value almost a month’s wage.

Many individuals are dairy farmers; some develop or choose coca, the bottom product in cocaine, one of many few worthwhile crops within the distant area.

“We are the peons of narcotrafficking,” stated one farmer.

There is not any police station, and lots of residents say their most memorable experiences with the state are their encounters with its troopers, who arrive periodically to eradicate the coca crops or struggle the rebels. On a number of events these encounters have ended with ruined livelihoods and injured civilians.

Before the peace deal, the FARC had a grip on this area, punishing petty criminals, issuing taxes and organizing work crews, all below the specter of violence. They additionally generally recruited younger individuals.

In 2016, when the FARC signed the peace deal and demobilized, its fighters left in a fleet of boats on the Guayabero River.

Three months later, the FARC dissidents arrived, stated Jhon Albert Montilla, 36, the daddy of one other woman killed within the navy bombing, Danna Liseth Montilla, 16.

In Danna’s city, not removed from Puerto Cachicamo, a large FARC poster now hangs above the primary strip. In the restaurant run by her grandmother, FARC recruitment posters sit on each desk.

“Join the FARC,” they learn. “Come with us in this war of the world’s poor against the world’s rich.”

Mr. Montilla stated the dissidents left the fliers, and nobody has dared to take them away.

In signing the 2016 peace deal, the federal government agreed to deliver help to huge swaths of the nation, elevating hopes in Puerto Cachicamo, stated the president of the city council, Luis Carlos Bonilla. But the assistance by no means arrived, not less than not within the amount wanted.

Disillusioned, dozens of younger individuals within the Guayabero area have joined the insurgency for the reason that peace deal was signed, he stated.

Recruiters typically promote adolescents on the alternatives they declare to offer: entry to firearms, computer systems, a mission.

Sometimes mother and father kiss their kids good night time after which wake to search out them gone.

The final time Mr. Montilla noticed his daughter was Jan. 1, he stated. Danna, who turned 16 in October, was an aspiring journalist who had begun working with Voces del Guayabero, a bunch of citizen documentarians.

Just because the pandemic started, the federal government had stepped up coca eradication within the space, prompting protests from locals who noticed their livelihoods in peril. Cameramen from Voces rushed to the scenes.

As the navy clashed with protesters — shooting several civilians throughout totally different encounters — Danna sat in a small store, one of many few locations in Puerto Cachicamo with dependable electrical energy, enhancing the movies and importing them to the web over a feeble connection.

“But her desire was to be with us in the field,” stated Fernando Montes Osorio, a cameraman with Voces who was shot in a single conflict, leaving his hand completely mangled.

Because Danna was younger, he saved her within the enhancing room, he stated. But they spoke typically. “She was focused on the idea that things had to change.”

Then in the future in January, she disappeared.

Her father stated he believed the violence she witnessed had pushed her to the guerrillas — and that her demise was more likely to create extra anger, pushing different younger individuals to affix the fighters.

“The armed groups are going to be strengthened more and more by all this repression,” he stated. “If we don’t create change, if there is no investment, no other vision for our sons and daughters, we are going to fill our cemeteries with children.”

This was not the primary time for the reason that peace accord that the federal government has killed minors in a navy operation.

The bombing of one other FARC dissident camp in 2019 led to the deaths of eight kids and adolescents. Guillermo Botero, then minister of protection, was forced to resign months later, after an opposition senator revealed that he had hidden the victims’ ages from the general public.

The scandal was a serious take a look at for newly put in President Iván Duque, a conservative whose get together vociferously opposed the peace deal.

His critics say his post-accord technique focuses an excessive amount of on taking out big-name felony leaders, and never sufficient on implementing social packages that had been supposed to deal with the basis causes of the warfare.

His supporters have urged persistence. “We cannot undo 56 years of war in just two years,” stated Mr. Duque’s excessive commissioner for peace, Miguel Ceballos, in an interview final yr.

A complete of 12 individuals died within the operation this month, and it’s nonetheless unclear what number of of them had been minors.

The bombing killed 10 individuals, in line with the navy, whereas two died in confrontations afterward. Most of the lifeless identified so far by the nationwide health worker’s workplace are between the ages of 19 and 23.

Once Yeimi Sofía’s funeral procession arrived on the cemetery, her mom, Amparo Merchán, insisted on seeing her daughter one final time. Reluctantly, a neighbor opened the casket and lower by way of the layers of plastic during which officers had wrapped her stays.

The city sat silent earlier than the woman’s ravaged physique. Soon, Yeimi Sofía’s sister, Nicol, 11, started to wail. Neighbors urged her to be robust for her mom.

Later, one of many city academics stated the varsity workers had not dared put collectively an anti-recruitment program. To accomplish that, the instructor stated, would flip them into “cannon fodder” for the rebels.

It’s unclear whether or not the March bombing was authorized, stated René Provost, a professor of worldwide regulation at McGill University.

Under worldwide regulation, kids who be a part of an armed group can turn out to be combatants, and might subsequently be legally attacked by governments.

But the regulation additionally requires state actors to analyze whether or not minors are current at a specific goal, and if they’re, to seek for different methods that may spare the kids, or to think about whether or not the worth of the goal is excessive sufficient to justify the deaths of adolescents.

“Humanitarian law imposes a duty to exercise restraints in attacks against child soldiers,” he stated, “and if such duties were ignored, it opens the door for criminal accountability for those who took the decisions.”

In probably the most excessive circumstance, if a authorities fails to analyze and punish these accountable, such a case might be taken up by the International Criminal Court.

In an interview, protection minister Diego Molano stated that the assault match throughout the parameters of worldwide regulation.

He declined repeatedly to say whether or not the navy knew if minors had been current on the camp, including that it was typically “very difficult” to find out the ages of individuals current at a navy goal.

But he has additionally stated that the presence of youngsters wouldn’t essentially cease such an operation.

“What criminals like Gentil Duarte have to take into account is that they cannot continue to recruit young people and hope that this will limit the use of the legitimate force of the state,” he told the newspaper El Espectador. “Children must be protected when appropriate, but force must also be used.”

In Puerto Cachicamo, Custodio Chaves, 34, has not seen his daughter Karen since she disappeared two years in the past, at 13.

Mr. Chaves stated she was recruited by the FARC dissidents. Since the March assault, he has been consumed by fear.

“Is my daughter hurt?” he requested. “Did she suffer or not? Was she destroyed by a bomb? Is she in pieces?”

He doubts the federal government will ever inform him.

After “thousands and thousands of lies,” he stated, “it’s impossible to believe them.”


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