Friday, April 17, 2009

Taking up fighting in a war to escape poverty

For some desperate for a way out, going to war could seem like a good option instead of suffering from poverty. Similar to in the states where a homeless person will commit a crime in order to get into jail, for a warm bed and three meals a day.

In Columbia, children a preyed upon to enter a rebel fighting force. The child soldiers join to escape poverty, parental abuse or for revenge.

In this Bloomberg story, we read of a former child soldier named Juan, who surrendered to the Colombian army after fearing for his life. Writer Helen Murphy also gathers statistics from Human Rights Watch for her story.

“I couldn’t take the fear and hunger any more,” recalls Juan, a physically and emotionally scarred former child soldier who turned himself in to Colombia’s military in 2008 after escaping from two years with the drug-funded rebels. “The army bombed us every night and I was afraid.”

As the world seeks to prevent the use of minors in armed conflict, thousands -- some as young as 11 -- bear arms in Colombia’s illegal forces, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. The global financial crisis may increase the pool of willing recruits: With more rural Colombians facing poverty, it may be easier for the rebels to replace members killed or captured in President Alvaro Uribe’s attacks against them.

Young prospects “come from poor and brutal backgrounds, where even armed combat seems a better option, and the FARC is happy to take them in,” says Philippe Houdard, whose Developing Minds Foundation in Miami Beach, Florida, helps fund a home in Colombia for former child combatants, some of whom were forced into service.

‘Appalling’ Abuses

While the scope of the problem worldwide is impossible to gauge, Lucia Withers, acting director of the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, says youngsters are always involved in wars in some way. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Feb. 12 said the use of child soldiers is “one of the most appalling human-rights abuses in the world today.”

Once the killing starts, “they are thrown into extreme stress,” says Maggie Mauer, a Coral Gables, Florida, psychologist who has studied Colombia’s former young fighters. “Some told me they lost control of their bowels in combat. But they are not allowed to be afraid; they would be ridiculed by those they depend on for survival.”

Juan, who bears a deep gouge down his left cheek, joined the FARC, Colombia’s largest illegal armed group, when he was 14. Like most young recruits, he came voluntarily with the promise of adventure and a better life away from destitution. He also wanted revenge on the army for killing his older brother, another child soldier.

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