Last month, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace – known as JEP – has decided to allow public preliminary hearings. This has helped former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to be more forthcoming about the forced recruitment of children into their ranks, the subject of a macro-case opened by the JEP. But there are still many missing truths in the debate over child soldiers.
Sandra Ramírez, a former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel and peace negotiator, made history when she was elected in July as 2nd vice-president of Congress, a feat no other former rebel had attained before in a country that has seen several illegal armed groups switch bullets for the ballot box. Her achievement was quickly marred by a string of media interviews in which she failed to acknowledge that the ranks of the guerrilla she served in for 35 years historically included hundreds if not thousands of child soldiers. This denial sparked outrage.
Two months later, former FARC commanders began timidly admitting their responsibility in this crime and expressing their regret. They are doing so in Case 07, one of the first seven macro-cases opened by the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Colombia’s transitional justice judicial arm – or JEP, as it is locally known – and one of two specifically focusing on FARC’s deeds.
THE POWER OF PUBLIC HEARINGS
Last month, the special tribunal decided that instructing magistrates can now choose to make preliminary hearings public. Justice Iván González, who is in charge of the recruitment case, became the first to do so. And much in the same way as former FARC finally began heeding victim’s calls to speak of ‘kidnappings’ instead of downplaying them as ‘retentions’, they have now taken steps towards acknowledging the tragedy of child soldiers and their role in recruiting them. However, in a similar vein to the kidnapping case currently investigated by the JEP, recruitment victims and organisations working with them are expecting former rebels to go much further than they have so far. Just as kidnapping victims are demanding that former rebels admit to the cruel treatment inflicted on them and the pain suffered by their families, there are a number of truths that hundreds of former child soldiers hope to see the demobilised guerrilla unambiguously admit in the case led by JEP.
Following Judge González’s decision to make hearings public, former rebels’ testimonies are now being live-streamed. The first to testify was reticent, with Abelardo Caicedo contending that FARC couldn’t check youngsters’ IDs and Rodrigo Londoño, the guerrilla’s former commander-in-chief, admitting it could have happened “due to exceptional reasons”. But they have been more forthcoming over the past two weeks, with Martín Cruz conceding he allowed children under 15 to join. “No explanation or cause justify taking away their most important years of growth and education. We cannot return these children we recruited and incorporated the time they spent in war. We cannot heal the deep wounds we inflicted on those adults who today rightly recriminate us for forcibly depriving them of their childhoods,” Joaquín Gómez, the former commander of FARC’s Southern Bloc, stated after his hearing.
A SILENT TRAGEDY
Yet, even though both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups incurred in it and a popular TV series raised its profile, child recruitment has remained a relatively invisible tragedy. Only 108 victims have sought accreditation as parties to the case so far, in contrast to the 2,426 who came forward in the case focusing on kidnappings, an infamous practice that garnered media attention worldwide and traumatised Colombian society.
“There is a significant advance, from FARC’s total denial initially to their recent acknowledgements. These were not isolated cases: the participation of children in war has been a constant in Colombia, in all illegal armed groups,” says José Luis Campo from Benposta, an NGO that accompanies former child soldiers. His words are backed by other numbers: the Government has officially registered 8,895 children as recruitment victims and the National Centre for Historical Memory’s report documented 16,879 cases. Both statistics show that the JEP will probably have to strengthen its outreach efforts.
Even though Joaquín Gómez said he was “willing to acknowledge forced recruitment without ambiguities and euphemisms”, the reality is that FARC has yet to admit to a number of truths around child soldiers within their ranks.
HOW FREE IS A CHILD OR A TEEN TO DECIDE?
One is at the centre of the debate: whether FARC actively sought them. Its former leaders claim that nobody was coerced to join the organisation, but did so “conscientiously”, as Rodrigo Londoño put it. “For us, the important thing is not what surname to give recruitment but understanding that however it happened it was always forced. ‘Forced’ doesn’t just mean by way of force’, but having no real choice,” says Hilda Molano of Cocalico, a network of seven organizations working with children in the conflict who submitted a report on recruitment to the special tribunal. It means, for example, admitting that power disparities and their territorial control called into question whether children were really free to decide.
FARC insist that their norms forbade enrolling children under 15 and that they raised the minimum age for recruitment to 17 in 2015, while seated at the peace negotiation table. There is a legal rationale for this line of defense: conscripting children under 15 is a war crime under the Rome Statute while enrolling older teenagers is not (although it is still deemed a crime under Colombian law).
Scores of testimonies, however, show that hundreds joined the guerrilla as teenagers or younger. At least 63% of rebels who deserted FARC between 2012 and 2014 had joined the guerrilla while underage, with 44% doing so while younger than 15, according to National Reincorporation Agency statistics.
Perhaps the most emblematic case is Operation Berlin, a military operation in 2000 that saw the liberation of at least 73 children and the death of an uncertain amount of them after the Army bombed their camp. They were all part of FARC’s Arturo Ruiz Mobile Column, recruited in the tropical lowlands of the Amazon and transferred to the freezing high-altitude moors of Santander where they were spotted by state forces. Twenty survivors of the operation, now fully grown and many of them professionals, got together last year to record their testimonies, drawings and maps. Their report is one of nine submitted by victims and organisations to the JEP.
To complicate matters further, many former commanders themselves joined FARC’s ranks as children, but – as Sandra Ramírez, who joined aged 17, pointed out – don’t feel anyone pushed their hand. Their view of themselves as everything but victims probably hinders them from seeing others under that light. “What Ramírez describes as her truth may be so, but it is only a half-truth. She cannot construe it as representative of the experience of the rest. They must acknowledge that not all children arrived due to persuasion or deception, but also to the use of force or threats,” says Mónica Hurtado, a professor at La Sabana University who has written extensively about forced recruitment by both guerrillas and paramilitaries.
ONCE IN THERE IS NO WAY OUT
After compiling a database of over 2,000 court cases from different tribunals, including more than 260 cases by FARC, Hurtado has come to the conclusion that child soldiers faced what she has termed “an open entry and a closed exit”. By this, she means that FARC had numerous strategies to attract children, ranging from more persuasive ones to coercive ones, but once in there was no way out. Deserters, including children, were severely punished, chained or summarily executed. Retaliations against relatives were also commonplace.
Some of those missing acknowledgments include the impossibility of walking away, the cruel punishments enforced, and whether child soldiers performed activities directly related to war (such as participating in hostilities, placing landmines, or gathering intelligence) or only indirect ones (including cooking, digging trenches, carrying firewood and providing sexual services). These issues have so far been noticeably absent from FARC’s statements.
“All children involved in the war had to do what was ordered or face the consequences. Age was not taken into account. We were simply tools of war who had to fulfil the organisation’s goals in a conflict that was not ours,” says Juanita Barragán, who was recruited by FARC in 2001 when she was 13 and deserted nine months later. A decade later, she was studying law and was one of the 60 victims who travelled to Havana, Cuba, to talk to the peace negotiating teams.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AT THE FOREFRONT
These voices are all calling for a more nuanced public discussion on child soldiers that veers from the simplistic tropes that rebels protected vulnerable children or that all of them became sexual slaves. In their view, this means understanding social realities such as that some children saw the guerrillas as their best option for survival in regions where the state was absent, even while still underscoring the illegality of such actions. Or that, as an investigation by social psychologist Ángela María Estrada showed, many girls from families with a history of domestic violence were seduced and coaxed into joining. As researcher Mónica Hurtado points out, “binary accounts will not allow us to see these complexities.”
Perhaps the most visible aspect of forced recruitment that has come to the limelight has been sexual violence. Even though it has also been a rather invisible crime historically, as JusticeInfo told, it has become a politically contested issue in Colombia over the past year and victims – both supportive and critical of the transitional justice – are pushing for the JEP to open a macro-case on it, not merely when it targets former child soldiers.
It isn’t the only form of gender-based violence that victims are asking the special tribunal to look into. One women’s organisation, Women’s Link Worldwide, is pushing for other human rights violations including forced contraception, sterilisations and abortions – which they termed ‘reproductive violence’ – to be included in the JEP’s indictment. At the center of the report, they submitted to the JEP is the case of Helena, a former FARC combatant who was recruited as a 14-year-old and suffered a forced abortion after becoming pregnant and stating her desire to have her baby.
HELENA’S CASE, NOT AN EXCEPTION
Helena – whose pseudonym was given to her by the Constitutional Court to protect her identity – was initially threatened with being court-martialled and executed, and ultimately tied up, drugged, and given an abortion-inducing substance. She was allowed to stay with her family due to the health complications stemming from her abortion but ended up fleeing after FARC members sent word that she was expected back. She still suffers from urinary tract infection and chronic kidney failure, as well as bouts of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her family was threatened for not revealing her whereabouts.
“We see in their statements that they admit to ‘some cases’ taking place, but they’re clearly downplaying their magnitude. Beyond Helena’s case, our report shows that these were common practices throughout the organization’s structures and in different regions,” says lawyer Mariana Ardila, who represents Helena before the JEP.
Although FARC commanders are beginning to admit this type of violence, Ardila contends that they’re constantly “introducing question marks” seeking to minimize these behaviors, insisting contraception was voluntary and that pregnancy terminations never took place beyond the third month. “They refer to the policy as something that is written down when it can also be a tolerated behavior: the question is not whether these were orders, but if it occurred in real life. It’s undeniable that this served the military and political goals of the organization, inasmuch as they didn’t lose combatants,” she says.