Colombia has been involved in a civil war for over 50 years.

The Peace Process has recently brought a ceasefire to the war and hopefully an end to this conflict. However, the conflict has made its mark on Colombia’s children, and generated criminal gangs that are still effecting children.

During the civil conflict, children as young as 9 were recruited by illegal Colombian armed forces to participate in the terrible war. It was common for these forces to recruit children from villages on a weekly basis. They offered money and lavish lives in the armed groups, but the reality was that these children were taken away from their families to lead lives of war and violence. Too often this also meant drug trafficking due to the key role that the drug trade played in the war’s funding.

At any given time during the war, there were estimated to be 11,000 to 14,000 child soldiers in Colombia. These child soldiers were affected in the most violent ways including physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. Some lucky children were able to escape the war, but this may have been after many years of living under war conditions. Throughout some of the key formative years of their lives, they learnt not about living ethically in civil society, but instead were ensconced in the hierarchy and values of the armed forces. The other soldiers replaced their friends and family, taking away their understanding of family values, and the strategy surrounding drug trafficking and military pursuits replaced their schooling. Furthermore, the armed forces deprived them of their childhood dreams and hope for the future, as they quickly became unable to see life outside of the war.

Nowadays, the recruitment of children into the civil war has been replaced by their recruitment into criminal gangs that emerged from paramilitary groups disbanded some years ago. These gangs are involved in such activities as drug trafficking, money laundering, arms trafficking, and illegal mining. They are certainly no place for children.

For the former child soldiers or gang members to lead productive lives in civil society after such traumatic and life altering experiences, they need to not only be reintegrated into civil society, but they also need help to understand values, forgive themselves, and have hope for their own future.