Colombian children stranded in war, five years after peace deal

PUERTO CACHICAMO, Colombia – At the age of 13, she left home to join the guerrillas. Now, at the age of 15, Yeimi Sophia Vega lay in a coffin, which was killed during a military campaign ordered by her government.

Some of the youngest children in his city, Puerto Cachimo, led his funeral procession, waving small white flags on the back of the school, with its molded books and broken benches, closed. Behind the health clinic and their small wooden houses.

“We don’t want bombs,” the children marched through the dusty street of the cemetery. “We want opportunity.”

Nearly five years after Colombia signed the historic peace deal with its largest rebel group, Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces, the country’s internal war is not over.

Far towns like Puerto Cachimo have yet to see the schools, clinics and jobs that the government promised in the agreement. Thousands of disgruntled FARC fighters have returned to battle, or have never laid down their weapons, and are fighting rivals for control of illicit markets. Mass murders And Forced displacement There are regular events again.

And young people – often trapped between an absent state, aggressive recruitment of armed groups and the military’s firepower – are once again the weakest targets of the conflict.

This became apparent this month, when the government bombed a rebel camp in an attempt to drive out a high-profile disgruntled FARC leader known by alias Gentil Duterte. Camp is over Young people recruited by the group – and the operation killed the least Two minors including Yemi Sophia.

Defense Minister Diego Molano blamed the rebels for the deaths, pointing out that they are turning teenagers into government targets by converting them into “machines of war”.

The phrase electrified Colombian society, with some saying Mr. Molano was blunt, but accurate, and others saying that it was rhetoric – portraying poor children as enemies of the state, victims of its neglect Instead of – which was once driving young people. Guerrilla.

Child recruitment was a common feature of the country’s decades-old war. Now, the rebels again, circled the city’s plaza, hung recruitment posters, gave the teenagers money, charmed the girls, then convinced them to join the fight.

The bombing also raised important questions of accountability in a country Still battling With atrocities committed by all sides during the conflict, in which at least 220,000 people were killed: Did the officials know that there were minors in the camp? Was the attack started anyway?

Yeimi Sophia’s hometown, Puerto Cachimo, sits on the Guaabero River at the intersection of the Ande Mountains, the Amazon region, and the country’s vast plains. One of its defining characteristics is the total absence of a state.

Cell service never came. The school, run by an NGO, attends only 10th standard. The health clinic closed when its only nurse left amid the epidemic. The nearest city is so cramped for four hours on a dirt road that even the most bumpy cars are often stuck in its mud. A ride out can cost about a month’s salary.

Many people are dairy farmers; Some of the developed or coca, in the base product cocaine, is one of the few beneficial crops.

“We are narcotics peons,” one farmer said.

There are no police stations, and many residents say their most memorable experiences with the state are with their soldiers, who periodically arrive to destroy coca crops or fight insurgents. On many occasions this encounter has ended with a ruined livelihood and Injured civilian.

Prior to the peace settlement, the FARC had a hold in the region, punishing petty criminals, issuing taxes and organizing work workers. They also usually recruit young people.

In 2016, when the FARC signed and disbanded the peace deal, its fighters sailed into a fleet of boats on the Gu├ębero River.

Three months later, FARC dissidents said, Jhon Albert Montilla, 36, the father of another girl killed in the military bombing, 16-year-old Dana Liseth Montilla.

In the city of Danna, not far from Puerto Cachimo, a giant FARC poster now hangs above the main strip. In the restaurant run by her grandmother, FARC recruitment posters sit at every table.

“Join the FARC,” they read. “Come with us in this war of the world’s poor against the world’s rich.”

Mr. Montilla said that the dissidents left the fliers, and no one dared to take them away.

In signing the 2016 peace deal, the government agreed to bring aid to the country’s vast swaths, raising expectations in Puerto Cachimo, city council president Luis Carlos Bonilla said. But help never arrived, at least not in the required amount.

He said that angered by this, dozens of youths from the Guayabero region have joined the rebellion since the peace deal was signed.

Recruiters often sell teenagers on the opportunities they claim to provide: firearms, computers, access to a mission.

Sometimes parents kiss their children good night and then wake up to find them gone.

The last time Mr. Montilla saw his daughter was on 1 January. Dhanna, who turned 16 in October, was an aspiring journalist who started working together Vocus del Guabero, A group of civilian documentaries.

As soon as the epidemic began, the government moved towards eradicating coca in the region, prompting protests from local people who saw their livelihoods at risk. Cameraman from Vocus arrived on the scene.

As the military clashed with the protesters – Many civilians shot During separate encounters – Dhanna was sitting in a small shop, one of the few places in Puerto Cachicomo that had reliable electricity, edited videos and uploaded them to the Internet.

“But his desire was to be with us in the area,” said Fernando Montes Osorio, a cameraman with Vox, who was shot in a skirmish, causing his hand to be permanently scorched.

As Danna was young, he put her in the editing room, he said. But he often spoke. “She was focused on the idea that things had to change.”

Then one day in January, she disappeared.

Her father said she believed the violence she had witnessed led her to the guerrillas – and her death was likely to cause more anger, pushing other youths to join the combatants.

“Armed groups are being strengthened more and more by all this repression,” he said. “If we don’t make changes, if there is no investment, there is no other vision for our sons and daughters, we are going to fill our cemeteries with children.”

This was not the first time since the peace deal that the government has killed minors in a military operation.

In 2019, eight children and teenagers were killed in the bombing of another FARC disgruntled camp. The then defense minister was Guillermo Botero. Forced to resign Months later, an opposition senator revealed that he had hidden the ages of the victims from the public.

The scandal was a major test for newly established President Ivan Dukey, a conservative whose party opposed the peace deal.

His critics point out that his post-settlement strategy focused on driving out big-name criminal leaders, and not enough to implement social programs that were supposed to address the root causes of the war.

His supporters have urged him to be patient. “We can’t undo 56 years of war in just two years,” Mr. Duke said Miguel Ceballos’ High Commissioner for Peace in an interview last year.

A total of 12 people died in the operation this month, and it is still unclear how many of them were minors.

According to the army, 10 people died in the bombing, while two later died in the collision. Most dead So far identified Is between 19 and 23 years of age by the Office of the National Medical Examiner.

Once Yemi arrived at Sophia’s funeral procession, her mother, Emparo Merchan, insisted on seeing her daughter for the last time. Reluctantly, a neighbor opened the casket and cut it through layers of plastic, in which the officers had wrapped his remains.

There was silence in the city before the girl’s body was seen. Soon, Nicole’s sister at 11, Nicole’s sister, started working. Neighbors urged him to be strong for his mother.

Later, one of the city’s teachers said that the school staff did not dare to undertake the anti-recruitment program simultaneously. To do so, the teacher said, would turn them into “cannon fodder” for the rebels.

It is unclear whether the March bombings were legal, said Rene Provost, professor of international law at McGill University.

Under international law, children joining an armed group can become combatants, and therefore legally attacked by governments.

But the law also requires state actors to examine whether minors exist on a particular goal, and if they are, search for alternative strategies that may spared children, or to consider that deaths Whether or not the target value is sufficient to justify adolescents.

“Humanitarian law imposes a duty to exercise restraint in attacks against child soldiers,” he said, “and if such duties were ignored, it would open the door to criminal accountability for those who made the verdict.” For.”

In the most extreme circumstances, if a government fails to investigate and sentence those responsible, such a case can be taken up by the International Criminal Court.

In an interview, Defense Minister Diego Molano said the attack was within the parameters of international law.

He repeatedly declined to say whether the military knew if minors were present at the camp, saying that it was generally “very difficult” to determine the age of those present at the military target.

But he has also said that the presence of children is not necessary to stop such operation.

“Criminals like Gentil Duttart need to keep in mind that they cannot continue recruiting young people and hope that this will limit the state’s use of legitimate force” He told the newspaper El Espectador. “Children should be protected when appropriate, but force must also be used.”

In Puerto Cachimo, 34-year-old Custodio Cheves has not seen his daughter Karen since she disappeared two years ago, at the age of 13.

Mr Chews said he was recruited by FARC dissidents. Since the March attack, he has been consumed with anxiety.

“Is my daughter hurt?” He asked. “Did he have pain or not?” Was he destroyed by a bomb? Is it in pieces? “

He doubts that the government will ever tell him.

“After thousands more lies”, he said, “it is impossible to believe them.”

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