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I was the most scared of all, because I was the newest and youngest. The bodies were lying on the ground and they cut pieces off them. The commander gave me the blood to drink.241

A child's first experience of real combat can be terrifying. Most children interviewed were reluctant to talk about their feelings, but the majority admitted being deeply afraid when they first faced enemy fire.

"I was scared, afraid of dying," said Mauricio, describing a FARC-EP gas cylinder attack on a police station in which he participated a couple of weeks

“I was scared, afraid of dying.”

after the end of his training. "I cried when I saw dead people covered with blood. They killed five of our men. Later, combat became less scary for me."242

Combat in the FARC-EP

The first combat was five months after I arrived," recalled Diego, describing another bomb attack on a police station which he witnessed as a thirteen-year-old rookie:

Lots of guerrillas were killed. I was terrified. I cried during the attack. There were helicopters flying over us. I hid in a ditch. I fired a few shots without aiming. There was another attack on a police post when I had to go out in front shooting. I was scared. All fourteen of the police were killed. Seven of them died in the fight and seven gave themselves up and were executed. I saw it all.243

Elizabeth and Héctor had similar experiences of FARC-EP gas cylinder attacks. "None of us were killed but fifteen police were," Elizabeth told us. "I was so scared when I fired my first shots that my hands were trembling. I was scared by the dead bodies. I had to take their guns from them."244 Héctor was put at the front in a similar attack in the department of Huila. "The attack lasted all night. I was scared. I saw people die."245

"There was combat the first day," Jessica remembered. "There were twenty-four of us guerrillas and four of us were killed, including a boy of sixteen. Two soldiers died too. I was afraid of death, but with the second combat you start being prepared for it."246

One of the purposes of the training the children receive is to condition them to the brutalities of war. A child inured to cruelty and the sight of blood is considered to be a more effective soldier. Adriana, whose story prefaces this chapter, described a barbaric practice she experienced in the FARC-EP during her very first combat at age twelve:

Seven weeks after I arrived there was combat. I was very scared. It was an attack on the paramilitaries. We killed about seven of them. They killed one of us. We had to drink their blood to conquer our fear. Only the scared ones had to do it. I was the most scared of all, because I was the newest and youngest.247

Like Adriana, former paramilitary Óscar was only twelve when he experienced combat for the first time. Brutal experiences in training helped him to conquer his fear, too:

My first battle was two months after finishing the training course. It was a land takeover, as we called it. There were 2,000 of us in the Metropolitan Block. The [guerrillas] had 3,000. The battle lasted about fifteen days, and in the end neither side won. I saw lots of blood and death. I was scared at first, but because I had already killed people in training, it was easier for me in combat.248

Of the eighty-five children who responded to Human Rights Watch's questions regarding combat experience, three-quarters said that they had been in combat at least once. Some of these children said they had seen combat more than ten times; a few spoke of dozens of battles. Still others were physically scarred from gunshot and shrapnel wounds.

Combat occurred with the police and the army, and between guerrilla and paramilitary groups. Most combat experiences occurred during assaults on police stations like those described above. Clashes between guerrillas and paramilitaries often led to casualties on both sides. Children also participated in pitched battles when whole guerrilla columns were attacked by the army or paramilitaries. In clashes with the army, the guerrillas usually faced superior firepower (including attack by helicopters, heavy artillery, rockets, and heavy machine guns) and better trained opponents.

Neither guerrilla force attempts to shield children from combat perils. In general, boys and girls are deployed without consideration of age or sex as soon as they have completed basic military training. On the whole, our interviewees did not indicate, however, that either guerrilla force deliberately placed children in the front line to draw enemy fire, as has sometimes been alleged.249

In fact, their testimonies did not suggest that the way children were deployed put their lives and physical integrity at greater risk than other combatants. Yet, given that up to 50 percent of some guerrilla units are children, they are exposed constantly to death or serious injury.

Operation Berlin

A clear example of the dangers that child combatants face can be seen in the fate that met some 150 children in the FARC-EP's "Arturo Ruiz" mobile column, a force of some 380 combatants. The children were mostly drafted in the Zone, many allegedly by false promises of money. Guerrillas sent them on a 1,100 kilometer expedition to win back territory from paramilitaries in the north east of the country. In the closing months of 2000, the Colombian army's Fifth Brigade and Rapid Reaction Force ambushed and defeated the unit in Santander department.250 The army named the ambush "Operation Berlin."251

Sixteen-year-old Ramón, whose father and eight brothers were in the FARC-EP, was a member of this ill-fated expedition. As he told the story:

Some time before the Zone ended, "Mono" [Commander Suárez, known as "Mono Jojoy"] took 350 of us out of the 43rd, 44th, 67th, and 40th fronts and formed a unit called the "Arturo Ruiz" Column. Mono brought us to the Secretariat, headquarters of our commander-in-chief, comrade Manuel [Marulanda, commander-in-chief of the FARC-EP]. He told us that we were going to fight in Norte de Santander department. We should be prepared for anything, he said. We were put under the command of comrade Rogelio. When we got to La Macarena, Meta, about forty small canoes and a motor launch were waiting for us. My father was there in charge of one of the canoes. They took us about six or seven hours downstream. From there, it was about a month and a half's march on foot until we reached the 16th front in Puerto Inírida in the department of Vichada.

When we got there, a comrade called El Negro Apache was waiting for us. We spent about ten days there. They gave us food, ice cream, a few things. One day, when comrade Rogelio was talking to us, they ordered a girl to stand guard. She was in love with a commander who paid no attention to her. She had a pistol with her. While she was standing guard, she blew her brains out. She was fourteen or fifteen.

We continued our march until we got to the Middle Magdalena. In the Middle Magdalena, a girl died of a sexually transmitted disease. She was exhausted, couldn't go on. She was in terrible pain and fell. So they buried her near a river and we went on. She was seventeen.

We were crossing a high, snow-covered plateau, when a boy, Jairo, got left behind. We didn't know what to do. There was no sign of him so we kept on, and we didn't realize that he had hidden in some bushes. He got away and turned himself over to the army. He told them everything he knew about our column. Later, comrade Rogelio told us that the army had us surrounded. He said that all we could do was face the soldiers and die fighting. We were attacked by machine gun fire from helicopters. Everyone is afraid when they feel death close, and I was feeling that tremendous fear.

Then our commander called together the kids he trusted most and who were the toughest in combat. His name was Demetrio, but they called him the Bull because of his heavy build. There must have been twenty-five of us kids, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen-year-olds.252 We left and stopped up ahead on a hill. At that moment a really huge guy came at us from the army battalion. The Bull stood his ground. The man had a machinegun but the Bull shot him and took his machinegun.

The Bull stopped them coming up the hill with the machine gun as they kept climbing up and I too stopped them with my rifle. At that moment, the Bull's woman [girlfriend] was hit. She was pregnant. The bullet went through her abdomen killing her child but not her, only the child. The Bull charged at them with the machine gun. But his ammunition ran out. They captured him and beat him. They caught the rest of us who were with the Bull very quickly after that, and beat us with their rifle butts and kicked us, hit us in the stomach. . . . They captured a hundred of us. About half were kids.

A soldier said that they were going to burn us alive. They insulted us, called us all sorts of names. Then the Red Cross arrived. The soldiers were saying that we didn't deserve to live, that we were nothing but garbage for the community. They threatened us because the Bull had been in the guerrillas for twenty-five years, he was a guerrilla commander and the fifth or sixth most wanted man in the eastern block. That was when the International Red Cross helicopter arrived and found us. That saved our lives. I had been shot here in the leg, see [shows scar], an open wound on both sides, the bone and the insides were showing . . . .

The only thing I felt was this burning sensation. My boot was torn from top to bottom. When the Red Cross arrived they found me like that, all battered from the blows we had received. A girl came out to us, and the Red Cross treated us really well. They brought food, treated my wounds, and gave me some injections and something to eat, and clothes to wear. Then they took all us minors to Bucaramanga. A judge told us we would have to stay there until they had found a home for us to go to.253

Ángela, a former FARC-EP nurse, was also wounded in Operation Berlin:

The battle began on November 15, 2000. At the beginning lots of people died. The army was furious. Lots of us were killed, but five of us were captured together. After they captured me, they hit me on the head with a rifle, and then shot me in the leg. I thought they were going to kill me. Luckily, another soldier decided to save me. He told the others there that we weren't fighting, and they couldn't do it. He cut my pants and tied up my leg to stop the blood. I spent three months in the hospital in Bucaramanga. They said I was hurt in combat. I was afraid to contradict them.254

Darío, twelve, also remembered the helicopter attacks, the children lying dead, and his fear:

We were meeting to plan an attack on a battalion and the army surprised us. They attacked with helicopters. We were talking there when they killed the guard and they all entered the camp, and killed quite a lot of people. I escaped and climbed down a gully to the river. When I got back I changed into civilian clothes, and left by a road, but I was captured and they said that another comrade had given me away and said that I was a guerrilla. Nine were killed in the fight, some of them minors. They hit and kicked me until a commander ordered

“She had a bullet in the stomach, but she was still alive. A soldier shot her dead, finished her off.”

them to stop. There was a girl who was lying wounded on the ground. She had a bullet in the stomach, but she was still alive. A soldier shot her dead, finished her off. Her name was Juanita. She was about eighteen.255

The aftermath of Operation Berlin shocked even battle-hardened Colombian journalists. "The gaiety of the music coming from the windows of the vehicle contrasted with the strict sobriety of the funeral scene: small naked bodies, eleven in all, laid out on the tailboard of the truck that stood in for a hearse," wrote an El Tiempo correspondent of the casualties.256

Thirty-two of the seventy-seven rebel fighters reported captured by the army were children. Nineteen of those were fifteen and under. Of the forty-six casualties, twenty were children. Colombian military officials told reporters that they believed that as many as half the guerrillas who comprised the original unit were children.257

Reports of child guerrillas killed in combat have continued. On January 28, 2002, troops from the army's Ninth Brigade returned to a battlefield in northern Huila department to bring in the bodies of fifteen guerrillas killed in clashes during the previous days. To their surprise, they found that eight of the bodies belonged to children they judged to be between thirteen and seventeen. They had long hair and were heavily armed. "They're girls," the soldiers reportedly told their captain.258

On July 14, 2002, the Miami Herald reported on another battle in Huila department in which thirty FARC-EP guerrillas were killed. More than half of them were children under sixteen. "Some were burned, some bloody, some just boys. Although the ages of the unidentified dead are officially unknown, the limbs poking out from under the blue sheets gave it away. These were small and hairless legs of adolescents."259

The fate of children wounded in combat depends to a large extent on circumstances. Often wounded children are cared for in guerrilla camps using makeshift and precarious medical facilities. Drugs are often scarce or lacking.

Betty, a black teenager from Chocó department on Colombia's west coast, confessed that she always hid if she could during a fight. But one night she was hit in the stomach by a bullet fired by a paramilitary. It passed through her back. Her squad had no drugs or painkillers. Her wound became infected. Eighteen months had passed but Betty's scars still looked raw when Human Rights Watch interviewed her in May 2002.260

Other wounded child combatants are sent home, or admitted as civilians to civilian hospitals. Some are captured, as happened to Mauricio in July 2000:

I was wounded in combat with the army. It was the first time I was ever wounded. I was shot in the left shoulder, and the bottom of my left ear was shot off. I was on the ground bleeding. I fainted, and when I woke up I was in a helicopter. They brought me to the hospital of the battalion.261

Children with severe disabilities caused by war injuries sometimes receive some monetary compensation from the group in question. Some are returned to their families.262

The death of children in combat is not usually registered in any legal record. The guerrilla groups bury their dead in unmarked graves. If a body is recovered by the authorities, the family is often unwilling--or too frightened of reprisals by the other side--to claim it. The body is buried in a grave marked NN (no name).263

Putting children into combat turns them into killers as well as victims. In October 2002, a FARC-EP battalion said to include some 300 children ambushed a police post in San Bernardo, Tolima, using mortars, grenades, and cylinder bombs. The guerrillas reportedly surrounded the homes of some of the police, and ordered them to come out or their homes would be destroyed with the people inside. A neighbor described how "they shouted orders to the police to give themselves up and laughed like crazy, as if it were a game." According to a police sergeant, "the police surrendered with their hands up and the guerrilla kids proceeded to shoot them in the street amid laughter and shouts of triumph."264

If army reinforcements arrive in time, such attacks may develop into full-scale battles. Alberto, small even for his fourteen years, described one such incident:

Once we were on an operation in Puerto Rico to attack a police post. We were arriving in a truck full of cylinder bombs when an army helicopter spotted us as it flew past. We fired our guns at it and it fired back at us down below. Then it started firing rockets. We managed to hide under some trees out of sight. Later on, I was back in the camp and the helicopter flew overhead but did not see us because the camp was well hidden. But later on it spotted us and opened fire, killing one of my comrades. I was grazed by a bullet. They took me back to the camp and gave me first aid.265

Paramilitaries in Combat

Many of the former AUC combatants had been in combat with both the army and the guerrillas, but most of the fights had been with the guerrillas. Some army units, children told us, cooperated closely with paramilitary forces. Juan Carlos told Human Rights Watch that he had been in about eighteen battles in the AUC:

They could last five hours or a day. I was shot in the arm once near my right wrist. I went to a regular hospital and they took care of me. I also got shrapnel in my legs once. We had about seven fights with the army. It depends on the battalion: some support us, some fight us. But the real enemy is the guerrilla, not the army.266

Even though paramilitaries do not consider the army to be their enemy, some children suggested that they were more to be feared in an attack:

I was in about thirty battles during my time in the AUC. Some with the guerrillas, some with the chulos (army). About eleven of them were with the army. The army is much better trained than the guerrillas. In battles with the guerrillas, often there aren't any deaths, whereas with the army there usually are.267

But while some army units engaged the paramilitaries in combat, others treated them as allies in the fight against the guerrillas, coordinating their actions and sometimes fighting alongside them:

It was tough here in Antioquia because there were a lot of guerrillas. Sometimes the army would show up too, but we'd coordinate so as not to fight with them. We had no orders to fight with them. We go on patrols together: 1,000 soldiers plus 1,000 of us. We'd coordinate plans by radio or phone. We'd enter somewhere together, side-by-side. But some army units fight us, they don't coordinate their actions. In Cali, some battalions worked with us: Palacé Battalion, for example.268

“We call the army 'the Cousins,'" said Leonel, a former paramilitary from Cali. "Sometimes they pass us intelligence on the guerrillas.”

"We call the army 'the Cousins,'" said Leonel, a former paramilitary from Cali. "Sometimes they pass us intelligence on the guerrillas."269

Seventeen-year-old Adolfo described being sent from the town of Sincelejo to Caquetá department as part of a paramilitary spearhead into the Zone. Cooperation with the military, he said, was routine:

We would coordinate with the army. The guerrillas had a camp in a small town on the way out to Putumayo. My commander would go and talk to this guy and with the second commander of the block, and they would say there is going to be an operation like this, and the army is in that place and is going to move to this place, and they'd prepare their troops, five or six counter-guerrillas units, lets say 200 or 300 men, and we would attack the camp with the army. An ambush, or to take a camp or a base would take three or four days. We'd go to the camp and stay hidden, quiet. We'd get right into the grass and the undergrowth. Quiet as a mouse, you can't move a muscle, waiting to see how to go in, what's going on down there, watching them mount the night watch, waiting for the guards to fall asleep. We'd have two or three cans of food with us, tuna, ham. We'd eat one a day. We'd open them with a blade and eat one, quietly and without moving a hair. They'd order us to keep down, lying on the ground. The moment they give the order we go in, all of us. 270

Severo, a guerrilla from the FARC-EP's 3rd front, described an incident in which his unit faced paramilitaries fighting alongside army soldiers. The paramilitaries executed two of his friends in the wake of a fierce firefight:

I was in about thirty fights. I was never wounded or sick, but both my friends were killed. One was called Lincoln, the other Hugo. Once, we went into a town and destroyed eleven houses belonging to the paramilitaries, and the army got involved. Since the army works with the paramilitaries, they went in to help them. There was a really hard gun battle between us and the army. We had been fighting for three hours, and we were not going to get out because two guerrillas had fallen and were lying there wounded. We always waited until the end to get out our wounded. But the paramilitaries got to them first and captured them. They shot both of them three times.271

241Human Rights Watch interview with "Adriana," Medellín, June 6, 2002.

242Human Rights Watch interview with "Mauricio," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

243Human Rights Watch interview with "Diego," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

244Human Rights Watch interview with "Elizabeth," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

245Human Rights Watch interview with "Héctor," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

246Human Rights Watch interview with "Jessica," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

247Human Rights Watch interview with "Adriana," Medellín, June 6, 2002.

248Human Rights Watch interview with "Óscar," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

249One former paramilitary combatant told us that the guerrillas had a "system of throwing one group up front and after this first group they send up another. If they see that quite a lot of the first group have been killed, they send the 'red band' guerrillas up against us. That's a special group. Those guys have five, six, even ten years experience of fighting in the mountains." According to the ICBF study Guerreros sin sombra, "The front-line guerrillas are often children whom they send up front in combat so that us soldiers and police use up our ammunition and men; in the second line go the more experienced fighters." Unnamed army official cited in Guerreros sin sombra, p. 113.

250Claudia Rocío Vásquez R., "Niños, entrenados durante un año en la Zona de Despeje," El Tiempo, December 4, 2000.

251Colombia's military selects names for major operations

252Some interviewers referred loosely to eighteen-year-olds as kids (pelados). In asking the interviewees for estimates of the numbers of child combatants in their units, we explained carefully that by children we referred to under eighteen-year-olds.

253Human Rights Watch interview with "Ramón," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.

254Human Rights Watch interview with "Ángela," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.

255Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002

256Félix Quintero Pino, "Nadie lloró a los niños de Suratá," El Tiempo, December 9, 2000.

257Juan Forero, "A Child's Vision of War: Boy Guerrillas in Colombia," New York Times, December 20, 2000.

258Elizabeth Yarce, "El dolor de los niños combatientes," El Colombiano, January 31, 2002.

259Frances Robles, "The new face of Colombian leftist guerrillas: children," Miami Herald, July 14, 2002.

260Human Rights Watch interview with "Betty," Bogotá, June 6, 2002.

261Human Rights Watch interview with "Mauricio," June 3, 2002.

262Guerreros Sin Sombra, p. 115.


264 Gonzalo Guillén, "Niños de las FARC-EP siembran terror en Colombia," El Nuevo Herald, (Miami), October 19, 2001 (online), (retrieved on May 22, 2002).

265Human Rights Watch interview with "Alberto," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

266Human Rights Watch interview with "Juan Carlos," Bogotá, May 31, 2002.

267Human Rights Watch interview with "Uriel," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

268Human Rights Watch interview with "Óscar," Bogotá, June 5, 2002.

269Human Rights Watch interview with "Leonel," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

270Human Rights Watch interview with "Adolfo," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

271Human Rights Watch interview with "Severo," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.

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September 2003