BOGOTA, Colombia – Juanita Barragán was recruited by Colombia’s left-wing FARC guerrilla group when she was just 13. She thought revolutionary life would offer an escape from a childhood of poverty and neglect, but the reality of fighting was very different.
She is one of thousands of child soldiers who have been used by the different armed groups during Colombia’s 50-year civil war. In the coming weeks, 50 child soldiers are due to be released as part of an ongoing peace process brokered between the FARC and the government. The agreement – signed on November 26, 2016 – marks a historic end to five decades of conflict.
Barragán, now 29, has been taking part in peace talks for the past year. She hopes her story can show other child soldiers that it is possible to turn your life around.
Here, she tells her story in her own words:
I was recruited at 13. I lived through some hard things. Sexual abuse, poverty, bad treatment from my mother. I had no one else. The FARC defended me when my mother tried to hit me, so I thought they were something good. I asked them to take me.
In other places, a child dreams of becoming a doctor or a fireman. Where I grew up, the children dreamed of becoming guerrilla soldiers. They were the only authority figures we had. There was no other group, no NGO looking after the people there. I did not see any other option, so for me, the guerrillas were an escape from my parents and the poverty I was born into.
After I joined, I realized things were not as they seemed. I had intended to escape one sad and difficult reality but ended up with another, with the FARC. The training was hard. We had to walk for miles and miles and miles, and there were punishments for bad behavior, for not doing the jobs we were allocated, or if you didn’t wake up at dawn. I fell asleep on watch, and there were sanctions. They had a lot of punishments. You would have to build the trenches or dig the holes we used for toilets.
One punishment for people who started a sexual relationship without permission was to be tied to a pole and left there in the sun or out in the rain. Thankfully, this did not happen to me. Some women who got pregnant were made to have an abortion. Sometimes, depending on the soldier’s rank, they would let them go into town and leave the babies [with local families].
It was difficult, this life. I wanted to leave but had no choice. If you left there was a risk of retaliation against your family, your loved ones – it’s a guarantee you won’t desert.
One time about nine months after I joined the group I got lost when I went into combat and went into the nearest town. I told a family there what had happened to me, but they didn’t want to run the risk of helping me. In the end, we rang my father. He had never been around or responsible for me, [but] he said we were going to go to Cartagena together – this was amazing for me. But that same day, while I was waiting to leave, he handed me over to the Colombian army. I was 13. They said, “Are you going to hand yourself over or be captured? If you surrender, things will be easier for you.”
From there I went for a medical examination, to check everything I said was true, and then I was questioned. They showed me photos of the FARC to see who I knew, if they could get information from me, then sent me to Bogota to start my rehabilitation.
For nine months, I was in an institute. I wasn’t happy, and eventually got moved to Benposta [a children’s home] which was totally different. That was when my life started to go down a different track.
I stayed there for two years, then went to live with a foster family under a scheme called Home Tutor [a government scheme to help former child soldiers reintegrate]. I was there until I was 18.
At some point, I became the voice of those who did not have a voice. With Benposta, I traveled to Havana for the peace talks. I was part of that dialogue, saying there needed to be no more children in war. No more children in the FARC. It was a difficult thing, to face them, and say that.
But it is also the job of the state to protect children, and there are parts of Colombia where there’s no state presence, that don’t have health, education, dignified jobs. Marginalized communities that you can only reach by horse. The state was not in my home province when I grew up, but the FARC was and they offered a way out.
As a child, I did not feel I had a voice. So now I want to be a lawyer, to defend the rights of children. I’m currently in my seventh semester, out of 10, so I’m nearly there.
These children [who are demobilizing] have lived through something so difficult they may feel the only option is to stay in these groups. That’s where they feel they’ll be safe. The state needs to be there, needs to be vigilant so that there’s another option. And both the children and the families need psychosocial support, so that the same thing doesn’t happen again.
This story is bad, but maybe it can inform other children who are going through the same thing, who feel they can’t change. Yes you can, and you can’t just stay in the past. I like to say that it’s like driving a car. You need to look in your rear-view mirror sometimes, but it’s also important to look forward.