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Some things in the guerrillas were good. It was good when we were in the camp. We were happy there. We could go out to parties, drink liquor and all that, and dance. But the worst was when we had to go out and fight. That was really terrible.136

That's what it was like in the guerrilla. I went off to the latrines and started to cry. My sister's death hit me really hard. I tried twice to run away after that but I never got the chance. I started to plan it, but I got scared that they'd kill me if I was caught.137

Daily Routine in the Guerrilla Forces

The life of children in the guerrilla forces is very much like that of adults. Whether young or old, recruits sacrifice their freedom and autonomy upon joining the guerrillas. Entries and exits to the camp are controlled, and all daily activities strictly scheduled.

Special leave from superiors is required for activities that normally would belong to any adolescent's jealously guarded sphere of privacy. Unlike that of the militia member, who often lives at home, the typical daily round of the "interno," or trainee guerrilla, follows a highly structured routine. Wilson, a well-spoken youngster from Meta, described a typical day in the FARC-EP:

We'd get up at 4:30 a.m. and have coffee. We'd train from 5:00 to 6:00, run, and do exercises. Breakfast at 6:30: soup and potatoes, arepas (flat corn bread) and hot chocolate. 7:00 to 11:00 more training. 11:00 lunch: cold meat, rice, and lemonade. 12:00 p.m. until 3:00 p.m., more training. A snack at 3:00 p.m.: oatmeal and cookies. At 3:30 p.m., bathing in the river. At 5:00, guard duty and services begin. The commander decides who does the services, cooking, etc.138

By all accounts, the UC-ELN is run on less strict military lines and discipline is less rigidly enforced. Political education seems to be given particular importance. Children may be allowed a period of adjustment after arrival at the camp. Some units of the UC-ELN, for example, reportedly give child recruits a three-month trial period, after which they can leave if they wish.139

In the FARC-EP, recruits are given only a few days, at most, to adjust before training begins. On admittance, they are usually handed a uniform and kit, a nom-de-guerre, and, sometimes, given a mentor to watch over them. Some children report having to swear an oath of allegiance.140

As Wilson recalled of his induction interview:

The commander asked us questions when we arrived: our names (they told us our new names, mine was Franklin), our ages. They asked about our families, where they were from; about school, how many years of school; and why we wanted to join. I told them I was bored. They told me if I didn't like it, to tell them, because I had three days to think about it. After three days, they asked me if I wanted to go home, and I said no.141

Nearly all of the children commented that one of the toughest parts of guerrilla life was the long marches, when guerrillas would move camp and sometimes walk for several days and nights with little or no food. Children had to carry their full kit, including tents and cooking equipment, on their shoulders, as well as their assault rifle and munitions. Discipline was especially strict during these marches because of the fear of detection. Children had to guard for hours on end, fighting off sleep in the knowledge that if they were caught napping they could face a firing squad.

Contact with Family

Once admitted into the guerrillas, child recruits hardly ever see their parents, siblings, or other relatives. Many former FARC-EP child combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch were not allowed to visit or communicate with their families at all after their recruitment. While there was no blanket ban on family contact, permission had to be granted to visit home or send or receive messages.

“You're not allowed to talk to your family. They probably thought that I was dead.”

Many children reported being refused permission repeatedly, and discouraged from trying to maintain family ties. Some, like seventeen-year-old Marta, simply lost all contact. "You're not allowed to talk to your family. They probably thought that I was dead."142

Ómar, raised by his mother after his parents separated, told us:

They never gave me permission to see my mom. She lived close, about a day away in the Zone. I asked every day for permission. They never gave me a reason. They just said, "it's better if you forget about your mom." I felt sad because she's the person in the world I most care about.143

Serious illness, when the child becomes a burden on the camp's limited medical resources, is an exception. Sick children who do not respond to treatment are sometimes sent home. The sickness of parents might also justify compassionate leave, but it was discretional, not a right. As Mauricio, a plain-spoken boy, explained:

I went two years without seeing my family. I didn't say goodbye to them when I left, but they found out where I was from others. Sometimes, my mother sent gifts to the camp. Finally, when I got sick [at age thirteen], they let me go home. I had malaria, and stayed home for a month. After that visit, I didn't see my family again until I left the FARC.144

Fifteen-year old Peter, who joined the FARC-EP when he was seven, was also allowed home when he got sick:

The camp was about five hours walk from my mother's. I got permission to see her about once every four months. When I was about eleven, I got a bad ear infection. It was made worse by the flies and mosquitoes. They sent me home and I stayed for two months. I didn't go back, but I joined the ELN.145

Some children described being acutely homesick and depressed, especially those who had not joined freely. Compassion was in short supply in such cases. Children unable to pull out of a depression alone could face punishment.

As sixteen-year-old Vicente explained, "If children cry, they call them 'demoralized.' They have to put up with it, unless they are really sick. If the commanders think they are faking, they can be put before a war council."146 Juan Pedro reinforced the point. "Overwhelming demoralization is a crime. It's when a person is sick of it, when he thinks about leaving."147

Sometimes, the forced separation affected parents as much, or more, than the children. Marcos, a seemingly middle-class eighteen-year-old, told the story of a prodigal son reunion with his family after he had spent more than three years in the FARC-EP. After escaping from camp in a Toyota truck and running three police and army roadblocks as he headed home under cover of darkness, he finally pulled up outside his father's house:

I drove round the block and parked on the other side of the street opposite the house. I spotted my half-sister, Eliana, and called out, "Hi, Elianita, how are you doing?" She said, "Excuse me, who are you?" "Don't you remember me? It's Marcos." She must have thought I was dead, because she gasped and started to cry. Then she told me that my father had changed a lot and had suffered a great deal, that I had always been in his thoughts. I had left behind many mementos, my high school diploma, and the organ I used to play. There were photos of me dancing, competition photos, and he had had all of them enlarged. Everyone embraced me and I was crying. I had to borrow clothes from my stepbrother because the ones I had left behind were all too small for me to put on.148

Rest and Recreation

None of the irregular armed groups devote resources to help children continue their truncated education. No former child combatant interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that he or she had received any reading or writing instruction, despite the fact that many are barely literate.149

Guerrillas offered no non-military teaching other than political classes and briefings in rules and regulations. In June 2002, a journalist from El Tiempo waiting to interview a senior FARC-EP commander noticed "two guerrilla youths who could not have been eighteen taking notes in a notebook. They were sitting under the black plastic roof of their tent waiting out a downpour. 'Carlos Marx was born in 1818,' one read out to the other."150

The time allotted in the camps to recreation is devoted mainly to swimming in the river, sport, games, and watching television and videos. Action, martial arts, and war movies are the staple fare. Parties are held around Christmas, the New Year, and the May 28 anniversary of the founding of the FARC-EP. At these events, alcohol is allowed, but those who drink at unscheduled hours without permission risk punishment. Drug use, including marijuana and cocaine, is strictly prohibited in all of Colombia's armed groups.

Even during rest time, recruits have to be on their guard. As Marilín, an intelligent fifteen-year-old from Arauca, explained:

Seven to 8:00 p.m. was the hour of TV news. At 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., we'd talk about what we had seen. But you had to take the correct line. If you didn't agree, you kept quiet. Because if not, they'd wonder why you were defending the government. They'd think you were an infiltrator. You said nothing. For example, if you saw on TV that the FARC-EP did something bad, like destroy a house with women and children inside, you'd keep quiet.151

At other times, children were able to relax and momentarily forget the conflict. "Once, on the commander's birthday, we organized a party. A band arrived with instruments and they brought lights to the camp. It was well organized. There was aguardiente [liquor]. The militias came. It was nice. We danced all night," recalled thirteen-year-old Darío.152

Orlando, from the FARC-EP's 29th front, said, "Every week we had a 'recreational Wednesday' from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. There was singing, story-telling, and games like 'captain orders sailor' (capitán manda marinero)," a Colombian version of "Simon Says," where a child gives tasks to other children, who win the game by completing them correctly.153


While religious practices, such as prayer, are not actually forbidden in the rebel forces, they are not allowed any public expression and can only take place in solitude and in private. In general, there is little tolerance of religion or understanding of spiritual needs. Neither of the two largest guerrilla forces supports religious practice in any form.

Despite the constant exposure of the troops to danger and physical suffering, there is no one at hand to provide spiritual solace. Although most guerrillas are at least nominally Christians, no religious services, such as mass, baptism, or the celebration of saint days, are practiced. There are no chaplains to hear confessions, to administer the last rites to the dying, or to conduct weddings or funerals.154

As Pedro, a practicing Catholic, explained:

Religion was not mentioned in the talks, but religious services are explicitly prohibited in the rules. You have to forget about your religion, like your family. I kept a Bible hidden in my kit, so that no one would know. I was scared that if it was found, I would be punished with eighty trips to get wood, and that they would burn the Bible. I also had a scapular, but I kept it hidden under my shirt. I used to pray on the quiet, very quickly. People never used to pray together. There was no chaplain. You had to find your spiritual strength inside you.155

Teddy, who spent four years in the UC-ELN, told us about his friend, María, who was killed for going to Mass in town without permission:

She came from a very Catholic family. The commanders sent some combatants to take her away and shoot her. They took her uniform and rifle away beforehand, and shot her in civilian clothes. Because there was a big protest, the commanders called a meeting and told us that her behavior could not be permitted because she had not obtained permission to go to the Mass, and had disregarded warnings.156

Life in Paramilitary Camps

Since we interviewed only thirteen former paramilitary children, it was more difficult to form a picture of life in the paramilitary ranks. As in the guerrilla camps, children were not treated differently from adult combatants. As fifteen-year-old Óscar described it,

Children and adults were treated the same, except that adults had to carry heavier stuff. But they slept in the same place, shared the same things, and ate the same food as the commanders. Sunday was a day of rest. We'd do the washing, buy things we needed. From Monday to Saturday, we would walk. We were always moving, we would change location every day.157

Paramilitary children also had to request permission to visit their families:

I thought I'd serve for a while and make some money to buy a farm. Sometimes I'd work for seven months and make two million pesos [U.S. $667], but I'd spend it. After serving for seven or eight months, you can ask permission for a visit home. I went home three times, for ten or fifteen days. Once when I was sick with malaria, I went home for a month.158

136Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.

137Human Rights Watch interview, Bogotá, June 2, 2002. "Ramón," the speaker, described to Human Rights Watch how his sister Mariana, also in the FARC-EP, had been captured by paramilitaries in combat, gang-raped and left for dead with a metal rod in her vagina. When the guerrillas captured the paramilitary responsible, Ramón's elder brother stabbed him to death with a butcher's knife in a fit of fury. Ramón was thirteen at the time.

138Human Rights Watch interview with "Wilson," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

139Guerreros sin sombra, p. 6.

140See Guerreros sin sombra, p. 87. According to that source, recruits may be given a "compañero or compañera, whose official function is to teach them the mechanics of the group and bond with them."

141Human Rights Watch interview with "Wilson," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

142Human Rights Watch interview with "Marta," Bogotá, June 1, 2002.

143Human Rights Watch interview with "Ómar," Bucaramanga, June 7, 2002.

144Human Rights Watch interview with "Mauricio," Bogotá, June 3, 2002.

145Human Rights Watch interview with "Peter," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.

146Human Rights Watch interview with "Vicente," Bogotá, June 1, 2002

147Human Rights Watch interview with "Juan Pedro," Bogotá, June 2, 2002.

148Human Rights Watch interview with "Marcos," Bogotá, June 2, 2002

149In some fronts of the UC-ELN in eastern Antioquia, made up mostly of children, informal classes are given by guerrilla instructors to the less educated, but this appears to be exceptional. Guerreros sin sombra, pp. 90-91.

150Jorge Enrique Botero, "Las Farc ante el nuevo gobierno: Entrevista a Alfonso Cano," El Tiempo, June 8, 2002 [online], (retrieved on May 27, 2003).

151Human Rights Watch interview with "Marilín," Medellín, June 5, 2002.

152Human Rights Watch interview with "Darío," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.

153Human Rights Watch interview with "Orlando," Bucaramanga, June 8, 2002.

154Referring to the FARC-EP and the UC-ELN, one Catholic priest and sociologist explained: "In general, neither of the two groups contemplates [religion] . . . the FARC-EP in particular underestimates and despises religion. In both guerrilla organizations religion does not count, even if it is not actually forbidden. But in the day-to-day life of the groups, it does flourish from time to time." Guerreros sin sombra, pp. 90-91.

155Human Rights Watch interview with "Pedro," Bogotá, May 30, 2002.

156Human Rights Watch interview with "Teddy," Bogotá, June 10, 2002.

157Human Rights Watch interview with "Óscar," Medellín, June 5, 2002.


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September 2003