Child fighter who fled ELN rebels dreams of peace in Colombia

Child fighter who fled ELN rebels dreams of peace in Colombia

Bogota (AFP) - The boy was recruited by Colombia's ELN rebels when he was just eight and saw his brother and girlfriend killed. After fleeing from the guerrillas last year, he is now trying to live a normal life.

Now 18, he belongs to the Victus theater project, made up of ex-guerrillas, former paramilitary fighters, retired soldiers and civilians caught up in Colombia's five decade long conflict. He did not want to give his name.

The National Liberation Army (ELN) is the country's second-largest rebel group after the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The larger group is demobilizing after having reached a peace agreement with the government in November. The ELN is hoping to reach a similar peace deal.

This is the young man's story.

- 'Welcome to the ELN' -

I'm from Tame, in Arauca (eastern Colombia). I was recruited at the age of eight. They pulled me out of my rural school. The men came in a pick-up truck, fired several times and took 15 kids and two teachers.

They forced us onto the truck. When it stopped, we were in the jungle. All of us were kids -- eight, nine, ten years old.

They left us tied up. The next morning they threw buckets of water on us to get us up. "Stand up, scum. Welcome to the ELN."

The rebels stood in formation. Then they killed our teachers in front of us.

One year later they called me in: "Your new name will be Camilo." They gave me a weapon, clothes and gear.

- It was my brother -

Five years later, I found out who recruited me: it was my brother.

He had volunteered for the ELN years earlier and they called him "Gonzalez." Since they wore masks, I didn't know it was him.

"'Camilo, I was the one who got you out of school because I didn't want to live this experience alone," he told me.

Months later, the guerrillas killed him for no reason, but no one knew that he was my brother.

They told me: "Kill 'Gonzalez.'" I couldn't.

"Kill him or we'll kill you."

They gave me a pistol, but I threw it away and left.

I heard the shots. I felt as if they had shot me.

"Whoever wants to go see him go now, we're going to bury him," they said. I didn't want to go, but I went.

Before they executed him he asked me to forgive him. I didn't.

- Her guts spilled out -

When I was 15, I fell in love with a girl. They called her "Elena."

I was in charge of a raid with three other comrades, including "Elena." We all returned except her.

I told my comrades to retreat and I returned.

I searched and searched. Finally, I found her hidden in some bushes.

I said "Let's go, they're going to kill us."

"I can't, I've been wounded."

When I tried to lift her, her guts spilled out. "I don't want to leave you here!" I said.

"Grab my gun and get out because when the army gets here they'll kill you too," she said. "Let them kill me, or you kill me, so I don't have to suffer any more."

There was a blast and I heard armored vehicles approaching. I ran and hurled myself down a ravine. From the other side, I saw a helicopter arrive -- I thought they were picking her up in a stretcher, but it was a white bag.

- 'We're free!' -

I got out of the ELN with a friend.

One day, we were near a FARC camp and he said, "Let's go with the FARC, there are cool chicks there."

We spent the night with the FARC.

In the morning, one of our commanders arrived. "Hey, little comrade, have you seen some ELN guerrillas?" he asked a FARC fighter.

"Yes, they're here," the fighter said.

My friend told me: "Let's get out of here before we're caught."

We took off and walked for 15 days toward a small town. "We're free! We got out of that shit!" I said.

We came upon a camp of soldiers and when I approached, they all came out with their rifles ready.

"Don't shoot, I'm coming to demobilize, I'm handing myself in, I'm with the ELN," I said, raising my hands.

- New life -

Today, the young ex-guerrilla is happy with his new life and role in the theater group.

"It's impressive to share things today with people whom we were trying to kill," he said.

"And if this group can reconcile, why won't this be possible for a country? It all depends on us."

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