“I’d rather kill than be killed.” These were the words uttered to me by the 19 year old former armed group member sitting across from me at a cafe in a paramilitary controlled community in Colombia. One year after being allowed to leave the armed group, he still had nightmares and visions of those he had assassinated; experienced trouble sleeping; and his new home built from blood money served as a constant reminder of his past experiences. At the same time, he formed a band in his community with former youth paramilitary members and held concerts; worked for a school as a recruiter in an attempt to get youth (especially those involved in violence) off the streets and in school; and cared for his mother, wife and child. Such behavior is not uncommon for former child soldiers. For example, all former child soldiers participating in a longitudinal study in Mozambique experienced psychological problems years after the fighting ended. However, nearly all of these individuals raised stable families, held regular jobs and contributed positively to their community.
Going back to the former armed group member now youth recruiter for a school, one may ask: what was his motivation for leaving the armed group? Several factors could have led to this decision. In our discussion, he simply stated that he couldn’t take it anymore (the stress; lack of sleep; increased nightmares). He also left the paramilitary at a time when he was having a baby, which could have also acted as a trigger to leave.
One may also ask what led to his involvement in the community and work in the school? First, access to opportunities. After leaving the armed group, he entered a school program designed for children and youth who had been involved in violence. The curriculum had more flexibility, technical courses and dedicated teachers willing to support youth beyond the normal academic learning process. For example, one teacher in particular was known for conducting home visits when students were absent from school; and he offered support during and outside of school hours. Many teachers at the school, including the one to which I refer, have been attacked by their students wielding switchblades. Their response? Return the next day and continue offering the support these youth need. It takes courage, devotion, compassion, and true dedication. And it is exhausting. Yet, these teachers and role models are out there and making a positive difference in these children’s lives.
Three key messages that I take from these events and from the evidence available on supporting children and youth affected by violence are: First, youth need to be involved in youth initiatives in order to better understand youth and what they need, and to engage other youth in programs (i.e recruitment and support). Secondly, teachers play a critical role in supporting these youth. Finally, youth, regardless of their past experiences, have much to offer to themselves, their families, school and community.