“Incorporate into society”

Former child soldiers from Colombia © Melanie Pies (KNA)

There are 250 worldwide.000 child soldiers. In Colombia, the Salesian Order of Don Bosco takes care of children who fought for rebel groups – and tries to prepare them for life afterwards.

After abuse, burns, injuries from mines, with health problems from tropical diseases and above all traumatized – this is how young people in Medellin arrive at a facility for former child soldiers. The Salesians of Don Bosco take care of the disturbed children and prepare them for a life afterwards.

"The aim of the project is to reintegrate the children and young people into society and thus into the world of work," says Rafael Bejarano. He is a Salesian priest and director of "Ciudad Don Bosco" in the Colombian city of Medellin. Round 1.200 children and adolescents live in the Ciudad, of which 120 are former child soldiers.

Affected person: "I perceived myself as a burden for my family"

More than 250.000 minors are abused as child soldiers worldwide, according to children's charity terre des hommes. "The time spent in the armed group is something you can never forget, but overcome," says former child soldier Claudia. Her name was changed for her protection. She came to the facility with psychological problems and has lived there for three years.

Claudia's hometown was marked by violence. In rural areas, guerrillas are active and come to visit families, as Claudia recounts. For her father, she says, it was very difficult to provide for the family. "I perceived myself as a burden to my family," Claudia explained.

At 16, she voluntarily joined a rebel group. She said she had always wanted to go to school, get an education and study. "Then I was confronted with the problem of not being able to study because of my family's financial situation, and that's why I looked for other ways."

There were many forms of violence among the guerrillas

"I didn't know what I was getting into," she recounts. According to Claudia, everyday life in the groups is different. The first thing she did was learn how to use weapons and train to be protected on the ground, as she recounts. Then came confrontations with the military. "That's when you were afraid and didn't know who you were up against. Does the other person perhaps have family?"

There were all kinds of violence among the guerrillas, including sexual violence. Claudia was lucky because she knew someone who could protect her, as she recounts. "I was better off."Other girls were forced to have sexual relations with the guerrillas.

She lived with the rebel group for a year and three months until she was picked up by the military while on an errand in town. This led her to the Youth Welfare Office and then to the Ciudad. "There are only two ways away from the rebels. Either the military picks up the child soldiers or they decide to flee themselves – that's very dangerous," Bejarano explains.

Helper: "The children must learn to trust again"

Olga Cecilia Garcia Florez, coordinator of the Child Soldiers Project, explains the Ciudad's approach: "The children must learn to trust again."Contact with parents is also important. In three and a half years, the former child soldiers receive training at the facility, for example as hairdressers or metal workers. "Everyone is here voluntarily and that's really why everyone is completing their education," Florez explains.

Colombia has been in civil war for 50 years. However, the historic peace agreement in late 2016 between the rebels and the government has made the work much easier for the institution, he said. "The integration of young people into companies is better because there are now laws that make it easier," Bejarano explains.

Claudia's brother was also in the rebel group, but they did not see each other there because they were in different units. "I didn't know that my brother had been arrested by the military," Claudia recounts. They met by chance at an event for former child soldiers. "We came to the Ciudad together. That made it easier for us because we were not alone." Now Claudia wants to take advantage of the opportunities she has in Medellin. "I want to use my scholarship to finish my degree," she says. "And I want to get to know other countries."

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