Disarmed Colombian fighters try to get along

Fellows Spring 2005

By Fernanda Santos

June 01, 2009

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – The men sat on wobbly chairs in the courtyard, behind a rusty iron fence that delimits their comfort zone. The streets outside hold the lure of city life, but most of the ex-combatants resist temptation rather than risk, unarmed, what could be a fatal encounter with a rival.

"The truth is, we're all really paranoid here," said Jovany, 33, a carpenter who traded his woodworking tools for an assault rifle and spent seven years fighting for the country's largest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials AUC. "But nothing is going to happen to us if we stay in the house."

Jovany asked that his last name be withheld for fear of reprisal from his enemies, although he's not particularly worried about the ones with whom he lives.

The two-story Tudor of white brick walls and peeling-green window trim is a group home known as La Fortaleza, "The Fortress," which houses 33 former rightist and leftist militants who chose to lay down their arms and try to rejoin civilian society as part of an ambitious program aimed at ending Colombia's four-decade civil war.

The ex-militants, accompanied by partners and children, sleep in eight dormitories, their privacy shrouded by government-issued wool blankets or the occasional bookcase wedged between bunk beds. They share bathrooms, trade cigarettes and decide with eerie calm what to watch on the home's sole TV. Early every morning, the smell of fresh bread emanates from a bakery around the corner.

Instead of following the lead of other war-ravaged countries, which usually wait until the end of conflict to attempt re-socializing former combatants, Colombia is offering insurgents a chance at civilian life even as the war rages on. By 2007, Colombia will invest $85 million in the demobilization program, which is at the core of President Alvaro Uribe's election pledge to suppress the bloody revolt that has killed more than 200,000 countrymen.

Through the Agency for International Development, the United States is providing limited assistance for demobilization, but the Bush administration is poised to boost its involvement with money and know-how as soon as the Colombian congress agrees on a legal framework for disarmament. Colombia is the United States' strongest ally in the region and the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East.

Some 7,000 fighters have surrendered so far, most of them compelled by a peace agreement reached two years ago between the government and the AUC. The goal is to disarm 15,000 more by the end of the year and essentially dismantle the AUC, which is behind some of the war's worst massacres and controls much of the cocaine that makes its way into the United States.

"We're breaking ground and learning as we go," said Marta Cecilia Robledo, who is in charge of the Interior Ministry's psychological support unit, which offers counseling to demobilized combatants.

"Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to manage the infinite sadness these guys carry inside," Robledo said. "They're sad because of what they went through, what they saw, what they did, the time they lost, the things they didn't enjoy, the things that happened to their families because of the choices they made."

Anguish and depression overwhelm most of the former combatants almost as soon as they enter the program, she said. Sixteen percent suffer from clinical depression and 40 percent are paranoid or show other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to statistics provided by the Interior and Justice Ministry, which supervises the program with the Defense Ministry. Most of the participants -- teenage soldiers and young women, but primarily men from the Colombian countryside -- are illiterate or poorly educated and have no clear skills other than knowing how to maneuver a gun.

"We try to show them that they have many valuable qualities -- their bravery, the warrior that lives within them," said Maria Cristina Andrade, one of the social workers assigned to the program. "They're creative, they're strong, they're made to live with few resources and they're used to working in teams, but this is all muffled by their emotions, by this trauma that needs to be exorcized.

"I think this is a problem of love," Andrade continued. "Love is what they've been missing since childhood. There's a huge lack of love in their lives and they come here looking for it, but they can't find it."

Newly disarmed militants wait at least three months before they are allowed to go to school or attend vocational training; that's the time it takes the government to run the background checks that determine which ones must be referred to prosecution because of their participation in war crimes.

Classes are part of the second phase of the program, which lasts between 18 and 21 months, but until they are cleared to take them, the ex-combatants sit idly in group homes, trading battlefield stories, smoking or staring at the television. They are given clothes, three daily meals and $1.50 a day to cover transportation costs, but because most of them go nowhere, the money is often used to buy alcohol or a hit of bazuco, a coca paste residue as addictive as crack cocaine.

"We're turning into one of those people who have nothing to do and don't want anything to do; people who are used to having everything handed to them," said Edwin, a tall 24-year-old who fled his paramilitary unit in northern Colombia in January after he began to receive death threats. "This is going to be a problem the day we have to fend for ourselves because no one is teaching us how to make money or how to pay the rent."

Two program participants committed suicide in Bogota this year and 46 were killed within the past 16 months. Some are believed to have died at the hands of leftist guerrillas, who are said to receive the equivalent of $800 for each demobilized combatant they kill, according to a Colombian intelligence official. Other deaths are attributed to revenge killings carried out by rivals who join the program and find themselves in the same city, or even in group homes within blocks of each other.

Copyright © 2005 International Reporting Project. All Rights Reserved.