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
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
Ángela, a former FARC-EP nurse, was also wounded in Operation Berlin:
Darío, twelve, also remembered the helicopter attacks, the children lying dead, and his fear:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
"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:
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:
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), http://colombia.analitica.com/cpi/4448575.asp (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.