Dia was forced to join a guerilla group in Columbia for nine months at the age of 15, one of hundreds of thousands of children who participate in armies and armed groups in more than 30 countries around the world. The problem is most critical in Africa, where up to 100,000 children are estimated to be involved in armed conflict. Child soldiers also exist in Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, though international law sets 18 as the minimum age for all participation in hostilities. Both sides engaged in Columbia’s 40-year-old conflict have used children: the government-backed paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, and the left-wing guerrilla groups Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional. Total estimates of the numbers of children fighting in paramilitaries and urban militias range from between 11,000 and 14,000. FARC has the largest number of minors, including several thousand under the age of 15. Women and girls constitute up to half of all recruits to the armed opposition groups and face pressure to enter relationships with male commanders. Children take part in combat, act as messengers, and lay explosives. Most are denied contact with their families.
I used to work. I chopped firewood, and sold it, and I used to work in the fields, weeding, sowing, with my other brothers and sisters. We had to work hard. I had to go down to the village up to three times a day to sell firewood to get enough money together for food. I started when I was seven years old. My older brother used to beat us and swear at us. All of us have a different dad. As far as I know, when my mother was pregnant, my dad left. When I was a bit older my mother took me to his house, and my dad said that I was his daughter and that he would pay for my studies and he asked me to live there with him. He tried to abuse me when I was younger, and because I didn’t let him he got angry. In the end I was with my mother at home. She said that I had to behave myself, that I had to study, to get on with things, not to go and fall in love or anything like that, and I didn’t really pay attention to her because she was kind of crazy. That was all, she talked nonsense. “Well, you must be stupid to go and fall in love because the same thing will happen to you as happened to me,” that’s what she told us; that we shouldn’t fall in love, look at how much she had suffered, now not even her children loved her. She said she hasn’t even got children, she hasn’t got anyone to love her.
At school there were some good teachers and some bad ones. Some taught you things. The teachers used to fight with the pupils, they used to expel people from the school, and they taught some people more than others. I had to be careful and do my homework so that we wouldn’t be punished, because if you failed the grade you were given a thrashing and you couldn’t study anymore. I didn’t want to study anymore. A family member was already ill by this stage and there was no one there to stay with her at home and so I said that I wasn’t going to study any more so that I could be with her and do the housework.
Once I had a problem at home. I was scared, and so I went to the guerrillas secretly, so that no one would know, one day when I went down to the village to sell a bundle of firewood. I left at six in the evening. When I went down to the village the guerrillas called me over and told me that I had to go with them for about three days. And so after being with them for three days I asked to leave but they said I couldn’t…only those people that had been with them for three years could leave. Sometimes they say that it’s just for three days and then when you’ve been there for three days they don’t let you leave, they say: “no, now you have to face up to the situation and carry on in the organization.” I said I didn’t want to, I wanted to be with my family, that I wasn’t going to join and they said no—I had to join them. And so I had to join.
I was there for six months. I didn’t get any training. When you arrive there with the other companions, you’re given a different name. They told me they were the ones who were going to help the country to recover. To help make changes, to help the people. I was given a pistol. In case of a battle I had to look for my comrades so that they would protect me and to go on ahead with the commander. I was also taught how to keep watch and how to talk to the people. The commander gave the orders and you had to obey them and if you didn’t obey them then you were punished. I was told: “you have to be at that house over there at ten o’clock and you have to give them a talk about the organization.” And sometimes I said: “oh, I don’t want to go and give talks,” because I used to be embarrassed by it. Then I was told I had to go and give that talk. If not, I’d be punished with 30 hours of guard duty. In the case of a firefight we had to leave all our things and just get the radio out of there. We were always a bit scared because if we lost that radio then maybe they’d kill us, because the commander used to say if that radio gets lost then you’ll pay for it. Pay with your life or with a punishment, for example, doing 30 trips to fetch firewood, 30 hours of guard duty and 30 days of cooking duty.
You had to watch over the camps, because if you weren’t careful and the army attacked the camp and you managed to survive, you were blamed for everything that had happened. If something like that happened, if you cause a comrade to be killed, you were killed. The most difficult part was when there were battles with the army or when they said that they were going to attack a village. They came and called everyone together. “When you get there,” they said, “we’re going to attack this village and you all have to be on the look out.” You feel nervous and you think that maybe you’d be killed there and with family so far away.
At that moment I missed my boyfriend and my whole family. I used to think that maybe I’d be left there, and my family wouldn’t realize. They leave you where you fall and then the army collects you and brings you in. When someone else was killed, that made me sad, that a comrade should fall, and maybe you’d die as well, or get injured. If the wounds were serious that you’d got, then you could die from that, and you’re in pain until you die out there. All of us went out, the ones that were killed were left there, and then you went back to the camp again.
Sometimes you could call your family or write to them, but you couldn’t escape.
You asked the commander for permission to call or write to your family. You wrote a letter and you showed it to him so that he could read it and see what you had written, and if he said “you can’t write this word,” then you had to cross it out.
Everyone in the group was equal. For example, the equipment that we had to carry was about ten or 11 pounds, and everyone had to carry the same 11 pounds. For example, when a girl was ill, or at that time of the month, you said, she shouldn’t have to carry so much, but then they said: “no, everyone is equal.” You had to do what they said. I didn’t like walking because that made me tired and they all walk fast, and if you didn’t move fast then the commander said: “the person who doesn’t step on it tonight will do six hours of guard duty as punishment.” So you learn to walk quickly.
If you had a good behavioral record and they could see that you were an enterprising person, then they trained you to be a commander. The commander decided everything. If you didn’t like the person that was going to be made commander, you just had to put up with it because it was an order and you had to. I didn’t want to have any kind of rank. Once I was left in charge of three girls and I was nervous, in case one of the girls should escape, and I’d have to pay for that. I would have to run after them, I couldn’t lose one of the girls. And there were a few who wanted to give themselves up to the army—they weren’t happy in the group.
If you wanted to have a relationship with someone then you went to the commander and you asked him. If the commander said no, then you had to abide by that, if the commander caught you, if you carried on in secret, talking to the boy, he got angry and he punished you. The commander, if he had another three girlfriends, then you couldn’t say anything to him because he was the commander. A lad once told him, “you’ve got your girlfriend and then others,” and he said, “but that’s me and no one can say anything to me. If I have ten girlfriends then I have to be with all ten of them.” The women with the commander were next to him all day so that he wouldn’t give them guard duty. You had to respect them more than the other girls. He chose which one he wanted to be with.
All the women there, even if you didn’t have a boyfriend, had to use contraception, because the commander used to say that no one could get pregnant there. If you got pregnant there, then that was your salvation because you were sent back home, but then when the child was born and grew up a bit, you had to go back again. Those were the rules of the organization. If you were already pregnant some people and didn’t want to tell the commander, then some had abortions. But if you told him then he sent you home when you were about five months pregnant, he sent you home, and people used to come and visit you, and were keeping an eye on you. You always get punished for getting pregnant, but the baby’s looked after. Though if you were pregnant without a partner you had to manage by yourself, and at home you weren’t really welcomed. If you were in an established relationship the guerillas acknowledged the child, but if not then they didn’t. An established relationship is having talked to the commander, and if he had given you permission to be in that relationship. That’s why there were a lot of abortions because no one acknowledged the child, and at home the dad would get angry, or the mother.
Here, where I am, they tell me that I have to respect myself so that others respect me, and to learn to respect and be with other people, and to learn to get ahead with what I want, that despite all those upsets that I had, I have to get up again and carry on. I wanted to be a computer scientist. When I joined the guerrillas all my dreams went up in smoke. But now I want to get back to that, I want to get further ahead in what I can...not to regress. I have a special dream that I was going to be a computer scientist and have a good husband, and I was going to be rich and have lots of money and many things, I wasn’t going to be lacking anything. I thought that maybe the boyfriend I had was going to be my future husband.
The person that I loved the most and who helped me with everything isn’t here anymore, but I have to carry on and one day someone else will arrive who I’ll love as much. At the moment I think I’m ok. I think I have to go further to be able to get along, to begin to express myself more, to talk to other people, and to be successful in everything that I can.
Narrative as told to the Quaker United Nations Office, 2001.