Being a child means more than being under age. The State has a responsibility to ensure that all children have a childhood. Some politicians in power think that the solution to every problem is a hard hand, even if the victims are children.
Being a child means much more than being under age. If minors are subject to special legal protection, it is precisely because a serious State, a welfare State, tries to offer children, adolescents and young people a real and emotional possibility of being children. The fact is that in Colombia many children are prevented from being fully children: child labour, domestic violence, abandonment, begging, insufficient schools, sexual harassment, illegal recruitment and now, even the possibility of being bombed, mutilated and killed from the air without any consideration for the fact that they might be there against their will, and that they might be deceived, abused, enslaved and kidnapped children.
Criminal gangs recruit minors in slums. They train children to be hitmen and convince them that as they are minors they will not go to jail for long after doing a hit. Sex tourism exploits minors. Young men are rented out, virgins are sold and pre-adolescent boys are offered to paedophiles. You can see it just by travelling through certain places where they sell them and rent them. The hand of the State even now is weak and incompetent in the cities, but in far off places, it is even lazier or non-existent. Every family bond is sometimes broken or battered by outlaw groups, drug dealers or non-demobilized guerrillas. Children are recruited with threats, extortion and deception.
Those who govern us, this obstinate and ruthless Right, think that the hard hand and fury are the solution. If there are 8 or 10 children in a camp of 15 guerrillas, bad luck for them. The Government ministers don’t care why the children were there or why they were recruited. The ministers are correct in concluding that the primary culprits were those who did the recruiting. But the ministers are secondary and more serious culprits, because they are the ones who bombed these children indiscriminately. They killed them. Is it credible to think that they did not know that this camp, that nucleus of the new guerrillas could be composed mostly of girls and adolescents? Obviously the order was not: “Go and kill children.” But the order could be: “Go and kill Gildardo el Cucho, the old man, and if there are children around him, well, do what you have to do.”
At the end of August, the Government described the actions that ended the life of the guerrilla leader, “Cucho” as “impeccable and meticulous.” For months they covered up the information that a minimum of 8 out of the 15 members of that guerrilla cell were children. They never told us that a representative of the village had reported to the Government that forced recruitment and possible kidnapping of adolescents in the area was going on, and that they were probably being exploited sexually because the girls were forced to take contraceptives. In order to kill a hated old man, the Government was prepared to kill these children.
In general, civil countries do not use the army to fight their own citizens. Armies exist to confront an invading foreign army, a foreign enemy. And in case of war, bombing the enemy is permitted. Here, out of desperation, it was accepted that the army would also fight other Colombians, the guerrillas and drug traffickers. The army is not trained to ask itself many moral questions: its effectiveness consists in annihilating the enemy. In that task, they devour the largest slice of the national budget, their members can retire at 40, and all of us pay them for another 40 years of retirement.
Isn’t it time to rethink all this? Shouldn’t much more money and human resources be devoted to the education and protection of children? Here we are not helping the disadvantaged population to have a true childhood. Children subjected to all kinds of abuse, violence and injustice, cannot be children. We turn them into monsters overwhelmed with fear and terror, into harassed beasts unable to make proper judgments, willing to do anything, even to kill, but we don’t have to kill them.
Héctor Abad Faciolince is a Colombian author and regular columnist for El Espectador. He often writes about things that happen in Colombia, but they have resonances around the world, including Australia, whose treatment of children in immigration and juvenile detention centres, have left much to be desired. The end result is the same even if the scale of the problem is not so great. This article appeared in El Espectador on 10 November 2019, and has been translated by Kieran Tapsell. https://www.elespectador.com/opinion/la-imposibilidad-de-ser-nino-columna-890318