BOGOTA, May 24, 2014 (AFP) – At age 10, Maria was forced to trade a doll for an assault rifle. An unpaid family debt made her easy prey for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America’s oldest insurgent group.
Maria witnessed atrocities, including the execution of civilians, and was herself raped. She describes her childhood as “years lost waiting for nothing but death”.
Now 26, she is leading a life far from the battlefields, and it is one that symbolises the hopes of a generation in Colombia, where voters will go to the polls tomorrow to choose a new president.
Peace negotiations to finally end the bloodshed are on the line in the election, with President Juan Manuel Santos seeking a second term to continue the talks and opposition rival Oscar Zuluaga hoping to freeze them if he wins.
Indeed, children paid a heavy toll in the war that has pitted the FARC against successive governments for 50 years.
More than 5,000 children forcibly recruited by illegal fighting groups – 6 percent of them by the FARC, which defends the practice – have been taken in by Colombian child protection services from 1999 to 2013, according to a government report.
Around 70 percent of them suffered sexual assault and 84 percent of them actually fought in the war.
Maria’s ordeal began over money. The only family she had, her grandmother and an aunt, living in central Colombia, contracted a debt equivalent to $5,000 with the FARC, and could not pay it back. So they gave up their little girl to the guerrilla army.
Maria, who asked that her real name not be used, says she will never forget the day of her forced enlistment at the farm where she lived. Two rebels came for her.
“I was frightened and started to run. One of them caught me and said ‘You cannot escape because now you belong to us’,” she recounted.
Her abductors tattooed her nom de guerre on her fingers. For five years, with an AK-47 rifle slung across her shoulder, she wandered with the rebels in “a forest with trees so tall the sun could not penetrate it”.
Her only education was military. “If you held the rifle wrong, your shoulder would dislocate upon firing,” she said.
She witnessed atrocities, like that of some villagers abducted and then executed because they could not pay a ransom to the FARC. “We made them dig a hole about 2 metres deep, put them in it and then finished them off with a shot,” Maria said.
Of combat against the army or paramilitary militia groups, she remembers bombardments and “the hand or leg of a colleague falling beside me”.
Raped by one of her commanders, Maria took advantage of the greed of another boss to get permission to go off and collect a “revolutionary tax” from some farmers. This allowed her to escape. She was not quite 15 years old.
Then came four days of walking through the jungle, with just some sugar for sustenance. She also killed snakes to eat them. “At a time like that, you do not feel the fatigue. Dead or alive, you want to be free,” said Maria.
After surrendering to the army, she endured another ordeal as the authorities tried to find her family.
She was shuffled from foster home to foster home, and then ended up living on the street for nearly a year – from child soldier to young, pregnant beggar.
At the time, for people labeled derisively as “rehabs”, finding any kind of work was very difficult. “As soon as people knew where I came from, they would throw me out,” she said.
Maria said she was saved by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, a government agency that helps illegal fighters return to civilian life. She belatedly got her high school diploma and two years ago, she got married. With her husband, she had a second daughter. She also opened up a small grocery store on the ground floor of her house in a working class area of Bogota.
Of her former life, all she has left is a few photos of herself, looking frail in her rebel garb.
Using her past to help others, Maria now works with the government rehabilitation agency that helped her, and has even met with one of her former commanders, who asked for her forgiveness. She is optimistic about peace talks that have been under way with the government since November 2012.
She hopes the rebels will be able to acknowledge their mistakes, from extortion to enlisting children “who did not even know why there were at war”. “If the FARC wanted to help poor people, why take away the little bit that they had?” she asks.