Years Of Combat Experience, And Just Turning 20 : Parallels Colombia's FARC rebels are engaged in peace talks with the government, but the group is also stepping up recruitment of child soldiers. Thousands of children may have become rebels in recent years, and efforts are underway to rehabilitate some of them.
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Years Of Combat Experience, And Just Turning 20

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Years Of Combat Experience, And Just Turning 20

Years Of Combat Experience, And Just Turning 20

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

In this part of the program, we're going to hear about the difficult struggle to separate conflicts and children. In a few moments, children caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now to Colombia, where a Marxist rebel group that's been fighting to take power for half a century is in peace talks with the state. Still, as the two sides talk, the rebels, known as the FARC, have been stepping up the recruitment of its child fighters.

NPR's Juan Forero met some former young fighters at a place in Cali, Colombia that aims to give them a fresh start.


JUAN FORERO, BYLINE: Luis Bedoya is baby-faced and skinny. And he looks ever the boy when he puts on an industrial-sized apron, thick gloves and a metal helmet - the tools of an apprentice welder at the Don Bosco Center in this city in southern Colombia.

It's a big complex, complete with classrooms, basketball courts, a dormitory and work rooms - home to boys and girls, as well as very young adults, who defected from the FARC or were captured by the army.

The training is preparing Bedoya for another life, one far different from the one he had in Colombia's remote jungles. Bedoya spent four years in rebel units that had large contingents of teenage fighters, trudging over mountains before dawn and fighting army troops.

LUIS BEDOYA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: It was always hard, says Bedoya, who's now 20. You never knew when you were going to be shot or when a bomb was going to fall from above.

Captured by the army, he was sent here to Don Bosco, one of several centers set up to serve former child guerrillas.


FORERO: It's a place where on a typical day dozens of children happily run around in a big patio while others play ping pong and listen to music. Most of the former rebels are in some kind of vocational training - like learning to work on car engines. There are about 500 children in programs like this across the country. But if peace is achieved, experts anticipate a much greater need.

PROVASH BUDDEN: I think the number of children that are in illegal armed groups like the FARC is very much under-reported. And I do think that the FARC has traditionally depended on the use of youth to be the frontline of the work that they do.

FORERO: Provash Budden heads the Colombia office of Mercy Corps, a U.S.-based group that helps run Don Bosco.

A decade-long army offensive has left the FARC weaker. And Budden says the FARC has become dependent on child fighters who are easy to recruit.

BUDDEN: Although that the FARC is now engaged in a peace process with the Colombian government, there are trends that indicate that there is an increase in recruitment.

FORERO: No one, though, knows exactly how many children are in the FARC, but Mercy Corps says it could be thousands.

Alma Perez heads a government office that tries to prevent the recruitment of children.

ALMA PEREZ: It's a crime and it shouldn't be done. The place for children is school. The place for children is the park, and it's not combating in any guerrilla group.


FORERO: At Don Bosco, the former rebels give all kinds of reasons for why they joined a revolution, from boys who liked the guns to girls who wanted to join their friends.

Jasmin Fandino, who's now 20, says she joined because of abuse in her own family. In the FARC, she survived air force bombings and army strikes.

JASMIN FANDINO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: It was very hard for us, she says, speaking of when her friends were killed. You began to feel alone.

These days Fandino is far removed from that life.


FORERO: She's in cooking classes.

FANDINO: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She's now looking forward to higher studies and maybe someday opening her own restaurant.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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