The shy 14-year-old was not sure how many people she had killed. "When it was my turn to shoot someone, I always hid my face because I was afraid." Julia (not her real name) is one of thousands of children in Colombia who have been recruited for combat in a decades-long war.
Her story is tragically typical. Years ago, Julia’s family fled their home in the countryside when her father was accused of betraying the local guerrilla commander. Like so many displaced people, Julia’s family ended up in one of Bogotá’s sprawling and dangerous shanty towns.
Unable to enroll in school because of the cost, Julia spent most of her time in the streets. Gradually, she stopped going home at night because of an abusive new stepfather. Julia was 11 years old at the time, homeless, hungry and afraid.
The men who approached her were kind. They offered food, adventure and, they said, a real family if she would join their cause. They were from one of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups, allied with the government in an effort to eliminate leftist guerrillas and protect powerful business interests.
Colombia’s shadowy network of paramilitaries is notorious for their brutality, but there are no good guys in this three-way war. The guerrillas also recruit children to fight and the government uses them as spies.
According to Julia, the child soldiers are called "little bees" because they are quick to sting the enemy. These children are virtual slaves; many are sexually abused for years. To ensure that conscripted children can never return home, armed groups sometimes force them to kill their former neighbors or even family members.
This is what researchers from MADRE, an international women’s human rights organization, found when we recently conducted over 30 interviews with former child soldiers in Colombia. On July 15, we presented the findings of these interviews, including Julia’s story, in a testimony before the UN Human Rights Committee in Geneva.
On that day, the Colombian government defended its record before the Committee. MADRE was there to set the record straight: the government is deeply entwined with the illegal militias that exploit children as combatants. Since 2006, more than 60 Colombian congressmen have been investigated for links to paramilitary groups; about half have been indicted.
When our researcher told Julia that MADRE would deliver her testimony to the Human Rights Committee, Julia said, "I want to tell them myself." We would have liked nothing more than to have Julia testify in person, but it was simply too dangerous.
At a Committee session less than two years ago, Aida Quilcué, a Colombian human rights activist who MADRE works with, testified about violence against Indigenous Peoples-another segment of the population that suffers disproportionately from the conflict. When she returned home, her husband was gunned down in an attempt to assassinate her. She has endured regular death threats and been forced into hiding since testifying.
This year, the MADRE-supported community center in Bogotá, where Julia and other former child soldiers receive trauma counseling, art therapy and recreational programs to help them heal from their ordeals, has faced threats and an attempted break-in. We don’t know who the perpetrators are, but in a country where hundreds of human rights activists are killed each year, the director of the center is not taking any chances with the safety of these kids.
We have to make do with pseudonyms and written testimonies to support our demand that the Colombian government meet its legal obligation to stop the use of child soldiers on its territory. But ultimately, it may be the government of the United States that has the most leverage in ending this atrocity.
That’s because the US is footing the bill for Colombia’s long war. Over the past 15 years, as Colombia has become the staunchest of US allies in the hemisphere, the US has poured billions in military aid, weapons and training into the country, thereby fueling a conflict in which all sides exploit children as soldiers.
Some of these "soldiers" are as young as eight years old, their childhood and humanity destroyed in a war that is largely financed by US taxpayers. So while we’ll continue to hold the Colombian government accountable to its human rights obligations, we must also work to ensure that US policies are not complicit in turning children into killers.