Colombian Indians flee threat of forcible recruitment in rebel ranks – UNHCR

Written by: Anastasia Moloney

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BOGOTA (AlertNet) – More than 100 indigenous families have fled their jungle reserves in Colombia’s southeastern province of Vaupes since the beginning of the year, afraid that armed groups will seize their children for use as soldiers, the United Nations’ refugee agency said. Colombia’s main guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is on an aggressive recruitment drive to prop up their dwindling ranks. This comes after a series of defeats by government forces in the past two years prompted record numbers of rebel fighters to desert. The FARC, fuelled by its large stake in the cocaine trade, has waged a four-decade war against the Colombian army in a bid to topple successive governments and take power. Recently, the threat of rebels taking away children to fight in their forces has caused increasing numbers of people to flee their homes. “There’s a very clear relationship between forced displacement and recruitment of children by illegal armed groups,” said Marie-Hélène Verney, the UNHCR spokeswoman in the Colombian capital Bogotá. “We’re particularly concerned about the increase in forced recruitment of minors in Vaupes during the summer holidays when teachers are not in schools and when kids are pretty much left to their own devices,” said Verney, who has visited indigenous communities living near Mitu, the capital of Vaupes province which is near the border with Brazil. Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) believe there are more than 6,000 child soldiers, with an average age of 12, in the FARC’s ranks. The rebels commonly use children as messengers and cooks and to plant landmines. Indigenous children, often living in isolated and far-flung jungle regions where rebels tend to have more power because the military’s presence is weak and sporadic, are particularly at risk of being forcibly recruited. EASY TARGETS In some guerrilla-controlled areas it has been known for rebels to knock from door to door demanding that families hand over a son or daughter to fight. In their strongholds, rebel groups hold propaganda meetings in schools, public squares and host parties to lure children into their ranks. With poverty and few jobs available in rural areas, children are drawn to join rebel armies by false promises of adventure, food, and money. “Some children join illegal armed groups because they’ve been talked into it. For others it’s about getting new shoes — some don’t know what they’re getting themselves into,” Verney said. Local NGOs estimate that Colombia has nearly four million internal refugees, second in number only to Sudan, with Indians bearing a disproportionate share of the suffering. The Colombian government, though, puts the figure at around 2.7 million displaced people. Last year, more than 400 families fled their homes in the province of Vaupes, a large Amazon outpost which is home to 27 different indigenous groups, because of threats and the fear of having their children recruited by illegal armies, UNHCR said. At the Bocas de Yi school, a remote boarding school along the Vaupes River that has become a haven for more than 200 indigenous children, teachers say their students are easy targets. One local school teacher told UNHCR: “These children have no real hope and it makes them terribly vulnerable to other options some unscrupulous people may offer them.”


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