MADRID – Catalina, a young woman who was a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group as a child, said in the Spanish capital that the time for armed conflict was over and that she was looking forward to furthering her studies and contributing to the future of her homeland.
Catalina and Miguel, fictitious names of two 19-year-olds, are the focus of the documentary “Alto el fuego” (Cease-fire), which was screened Thursday in Madrid and retraces their darkest days among the FARC and their eventual escape and new life as students.
That personal transformation has been possible thanks to the “Building Dreams” program of Medellin, Colombia-based Ciudad San Bosco, a Salesian Missions educational and social institution that welcomes children who have fled the guerrillas and provides them with financial assistance, education and support.
The two teenagers are in Europe to argue for the need for a definitive peace in Colombia, a trip that coincides with the commemoration of International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers on Feb. 12.
“I joined (the rebels) out of curiosity and to learn what that was all about,” Manuel said during the presentation of the documentary in Madrid.
In the film, Manuel says he lost the fear of taking a human life and came to see it as normal, though recalling that he decided to leave that life behind the day the guerrillas killed his brother.
He said he was virtually illiterate when he arrived at Ciudad Don Bosco but that he has since learned to read and write and earned a metalworking degree and now has a job.
Like Manuel, Catalina is one of more than 2,300 minors who have undergone a process of personal transformation at that institution, which works in conjunction with the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare.
She joined the guerrillas at age 13 and spent three years in the jungle, motivated by a desire to escape an abusive stepfather.
Children arrive at the center after having undergone strict military discipline and been totally deprived of affection, to the point that they asked to be punished when they make a mistake, said the director of Ciudad Don Bosco, Rafael Bejarano.
“This is one of the most painful moments because we’re not dealing with free human beings, but rather shackled human beings,” he added.
Catalina said she was looking ahead to the future and wanted to become a nurse and later a children’s rights attorney and peace ambassador.
Catalina and Manuel expressed confidence that Colombians’ capacity for forgiveness would make peace possible, even though a peace agreement signed by President Juan Manuel Santos’ administration and the FARC was narrowly rejected by voters in a plebiscite and had to be revised and approved by Congress.
“How can we not forgive knowing that in this life if you don’t forgive you’ll always be left with scars?” Catalina asked rhetorically.