Today, the International Criminal Court issued its first ever verdict. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, has been convicted of participating in the recruitment of child soldiers. He now faces life imprisonment.
The verdict is a milestone. It sends a message to armed groups everywhere that they can’t exploit child soldiers with impunity. In fact, the problem isn’t only confined to Africa.
Child soldiers are being recruited by armed groups much closer to home—and funded by your tax dollars. In Colombia, a decades-long conflict rages on, and children are dragged into combat.
As Colombia has become the staunchest US ally in the hemisphere, the US has poured billions in military aid, weapons and training into the country, fueling a war in which all sides exploit children as soldiers.
Some are boys and girls as young as eight years old. They are children like Julia*, who by age 14 was no longer sure how many people she had killed. “When it was my turn to shoot someone, I always hid my face because I was afraid,” she explained.
Julia’s story is tragically typical. Years ago, her family fled their home in the countryside when her father was accused of betraying the local guerrilla commander. Like so many displaced people, Julia and her mother ended up in one of Bogotá’s sprawling and dangerous shanty-towns.
Unable to enroll in school because of the cost, Julia spent most of her time in the streets, hungry and often afraid.
The men who approached her were kind. They offered food, adventure and, they said, a real family if she would join their cause. They were from one of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary groups, allied with the government in an effort to eliminate leftist guerrillas and protect powerful business interests.
Colombia’s shadowy network of paramilitaries is notorious for their brutality, but there are no good guys in this three-way war. The guerrillas also recruit children to fight, and the government uses children as spies.
According to Julia, the child soldiers are called "little bees" because they are quick to sting the enemy. These children are virtual slaves; many are sexually abused for years. To ensure that conscripted children can never return home, armed groups sometimes force them to kill their neighbors or even family members.
Few alternatives exist for these children. But luckily, some have found their way to Taller de Vida, an organization based in Bogotá that provides former child soldiers and children at risk of recruitment with trauma counseling, art therapy and recreational programs. The children at Taller de Vida also learn about the struggles of child soldiers in other parts on the world, including Africa.
They are counting on us to make sure that all children—in Congo, Colombia and beyond—are protected from the abuse of combat. We must make sure today’s International Criminal Court ruling resonates far beyond Africa, to every community where children, lacking options and opportunity, are lured into war.
Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE.