In a hillside classroom in Medellín, a group of teenage boys take crayons to long sheets of unfurled paper. One draws the detonation pin of a hand grenade. Another sketches blood splattered across a body. Scrawled words say what the pictures can't: Hunger. Kidnappings. Revenge. Displacement. Distress.
These boys, ages 14 to 19, are drawing the stories of their lives. They used to be members of Colombian guerrilla groups. Now, after putting down their arms, they are trying to rejoin civilian life.
"The biggest challenge is making them emotionally whole again," says Philippe Houdard, founder of the Miami-based Developing Minds Foundation, "to get them from being killing machines to normal human beings." The rehabilitation program, started in 2003 and supported by Developing Minds and Colombia's Family Welfare Institute, offers housing, recreation, counseling, schooling and vocational training to former child soldiers. The 31 boys here are among the nearly 3,000 minors who have given up guerrilla life under a 2003 government amnesty program. The guerrilla groups, formed out of the leftist peasant militias of the 1960s, continue to fight Colombia's government and rightist paramilitary forces but have been greatly weakened in recent years, defeated in battle and diminished by desertion. (See pictures of child soldiers around the world.)
For many fighters, especially children, leaving the guerrillas can trigger an identity crisis, says Colombian psychologist Luis Gaviria. "They're like scared rabbits in a world they know nothing about." Many come from impoverished rural communities and enlisted at as young as 9 years old. While some are kidnapped and forced to join rebel groups, the majority are lured with empty promises of salaries, says Martha Mesa, a social worker at the center. Others join for darker reasons: for those who have lost loved ones in the cross fire between guerrillas and paramilitary groups, vengeance can be a powerful motivator. Humberto, a resident at the center, says that when he was 12 years old, paramilitary soldiers murdered his mother and brother. (His name and those of other former guerrillas have been changed to protect their identity.) "I felt a lot of anger, like revenge," he remembers. He signed up with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's biggest guerrilla group, and within a few years was ordering deadly attacks of his own--including the kidnapping and murder of 13 politicians. "I killed a lot of people, but here I am," he says. Now 17, Humberto is studying confectionery and will soon enter the 10th grade. (See pictures of the FARC guerillas.)
Desertion isn't a decision made lightly: such disloyalty can often mean a death sentence for former guerrillas or their families. In the midst of a workshop, William, 14, leaves the room to take a phone call from his mother. He returns, distracted, biting his nails. His mother is now on FARC's hit list. "If I didn't demobilize, this wouldn't be happening to my mom," he says, looking down. "I don't know what to do. I love my mother very much." Despite the danger, many do leave, disillusioned by the lack of pay and traumatized by the constant danger of military attack. (Life in the jungles--as both participants and victims of a dirty war--is also close to intolerable.)
Maggie Mauer, a Miami psychologist volunteering her expertise in trauma, points to a drawing of a body lying in a pool of blood as a good sign. "Last year, he wouldn't even draw anything," she says of the artist, Alejandro, who was drugged and raped by his FARC commander. Alejandro is able to talk about it now but says, "What happened to me, you can't make go away." Next to a drawing of an explosive, he sketches the school bus he now boards every day, and he works on penciling the road to the future. Alejandro dreams of becoming a hairdresser. "I won't just need scissors. I'll need a [straightening] iron and a blowdryer," says the 14-year-old--in addition to years of training. "I have to start preparing myself now."