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Children trudge through mud, train for war in Colombia

Haunted by 'seeing dead and killing people'

By Karl Penhaul

A young girl rests during training in Colombia.


In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events.



Behind the Scenes

BOGOTA, Colombia (CNN) -- The video image is grainy. The VHS tape damaged from weeks of being stored in a jungle camp. But you can make them out clearly -- hundreds of children, boys and girls, crawling through thick mud, saluting and marching on the spot.

These are the forgotten child warriors of Colombia's largely forgotten guerrilla war.

The army seized the video in northwest Colombia in May. It gives fresh insight into how the country's largest Communist rebel force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, continues to train children for combat in its decades-old effort to overthrow the state.

Human Rights Watch says at least 11,000 children under the age of 18 and some 10 and younger are in the ranks of Colombia's outlaw left- and right-wing militias. United Nations officials put the figure close to 14,000. That makes the situation here one of the worst in the world. (Watch child warriors belly down in mud -- 3:14)

It's tempting to speak of stolen innocence, haunted looks and childhood lost. But in many ways those are Western attitudes.

Colombia's reality is a world away. Outlaw militia or not, childhood doesn't last long here against the backdrop of often grinding poverty.

True, human rights groups estimate 20 percent of Colombia's child soldiers are recruited by force. But that means 80 percent join up voluntarily.

'Your life or the other person's'

I met 19-year-old German in Bogota. He joined the FARC at 15 and deserted before he turned 18 on a day, he said, he realized "he was more bored than usual."

His story isn't necessarily typical. He wasn't driven by poverty or family problems -- some of the main motivations, according to aid organizations.

He was at high school in Bogota when his father was kidnapped by a suspected right-wing paramilitary squad. He dropped out of school and went to the southern jungles looking for revenge. He said he's never had any word on the fate of his father. Naturally war has scarred him.

"Psychologically it's very tough. It will mark my life. I always have that memory of fighting and seeing dead and killing people," he said. "But if you're at war, it's your life or the other person's life. You have to deal with it and defend yourself."

Back in civilian life, German has made firm friends with 18-year-old Michael. On the battlefield, the two would have been mortal enemies. Michael fought for a year with right-wing paramilitaries. His mother didn't have enough money to put him through high school, and a friend appeared offering him a job and a wage wielding a gun.

He marched off into the jungle. It was too late to turn back when he realized he'd been duped. There were no wages, just long marches and scant rations.

A land without childhood dreams

I've met many other child soldiers, on and off the battlefield. I remember 14-year-old Marcela nursing a gunshot wound to her thigh in a shack in the jungle. Too small to carry an assault rifle, she was given a pistol by her rebel commander. Cleaning it one day, it went off. She'd shot herself.

But she told me there was no looking back. She'd begged the guerrillas to take her and lied about her age. It was her way of escaping an abusive father, she said.

True, life had suddenly become very dangerous but at the same time, she said, guerrilla comrades were teaching her to read and write.

I also once sat outside a village school in eastern Colombia with 15 youngsters who said they had left the FARC -- at the order of guerrilla commanders -- to return to school.

I asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. Dead silence. Firemen, doctors, vets, astronauts? I inquired. But in that corner of Colombia children don't have childhood dreams. They laughed and made me feel stupid.

"Mister," a patient 10-year-old told me, "we know what we're going to be when we grow up. Poor peasant farmers sowing plantains and corn, working out in the sun and rain wielding a machete and out of bed before 5 a.m. to feed a cow or the pigs or chickens."

Not surprising, they joined the rebels when a FARC column came through their village with the promise of three meals a day, two sets of combat fatigues -- in case one got dirty or wet -- and an automatic assault rifle instead of a machete.

Of course, it's shocking that Colombia has more child soldiers than almost anywhere in the world.

The battlefield is no place for kids. But those boys I met that day say dying slowly, poor, malnourished and unschooled isn't much of a childhood dream either.

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