Colombian children have never lived in a world where their country was not fighting. Now, as peace finally seems probable, the nation is grappling with the mental-health fallout from the conflict.
The Antonio García School sits in Ciudad Bolivar, one of the poorest parts of Bogotá, Colombia, and an area with a reputation for serious crime and intense poverty. Everything here has an unfinished, haphazard feel: Drivers swerve to avoid huge potholes, litter lines the street, and up above us, precariously built houses cling to the hillside.
But for the first time in decades, Ciudad Bolivar may soon know peace. Colombia’s Congress approved an agreement with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on Wednesday, finally ending a brutal conflict with the guerrilla group that has plagued the South American nation for generations. While everyone thought that a deal to end the war had been clinched in August, those who opposed the peace deal won a referendum by a wafer-thin margin, with 50.21 percent of the vote. Forced back to the drawing board, the government and the FARC returned with a new deal last month after 40 days of talks.
Although huge metal gates guard the entrance to The Antonio García School, once inside, it is friendly and open with paved patios between the brick buildings. In a small classroom, a group of school children have come to talk, as they do more or less every month. Some members of this group have lost family members to the war with the FARC; others have seen their parents threatened or their siblings targeted by armed groups trying to recruit them. Many of their families have been displaced by the war and now call this dusty part of Colombia’s capital city home.
Today, the start of the school year, their teacher, Wilson Muñoz, opens the conversation asking the group to introduce themselves: where they are from; what brought their families here; and to explain how these sessions, in which they meet other children of the war, have helped them.
“I feel happy here, free, I can tell my story, talk about it,” says Mayerly Rodríguez, 19, one of the oldest members of the group, whose family was threatened by armed gunmen trying to recruit her siblings when she was just a small child. “They said we had to go, and if you didn’t, they killed you.”
When Muñoz, who is also a professor in education at a local university, set up this group 11 years ago, he worked with 53 conflict-affected families. Two years later, the number had quadrupled. Last year the number dropped, but only slightly, to 175 families.
Research shows that children exposed to war are at high risk of developing mental-health problems, which can have long-term impacts on their well-being, their sense of happiness, and their ability to deal with the past. According to the American Psychological Association, children exposed to events causing “horror, terror, or helplessness” can be prone to displays of anger, suffer from separation anxiety and from nightmares, and fall behind in their schoolwork. These problems, if left untreated, affect not just the child, but can also have “profound implications” for their family and community, says the ChildTrauma Academy, a non-profit based in Houston. Unsurprisingly, a report published by the Colombian government’s Institute of Family Welfare found that the impact of the war on children has been particularly pronounced and can have long-lasting impacts on their psycho-social development.
With the war with the FARC finally nearing an end, Colombia has a huge reckoning to do and a population of people tired and traumatised from war. The idea behind Caminos de Paz, and other programs like it, is to give the children a place to go, to help them talk about the past and to look to the future. With many other therapies or treatments out of reach, meetings like this might be the only chance some children will get to tell their story.
During their sessions with Muñoz, children, and sometimes their parents, sit down to talk about what has happened to their families, eating tamales, drinking soda or hot chocolate. He once asked the children in the group to draw “fear”: They drew helicopters and people fighting; one sketched a person with no tears.
One family in the group told how they had been displaced by the violence four times, so each child they had was born in a different place. Another boy was about to join the group on a visit out of town when his father, desperate from being out of work so long, went back to the family farm. Not long after came a phone call to tell them he had been murdered. “Instead of coming on the trip, the boy went to bury his father,” Muñoz said. “The children have seen such traumas it’s hard for them to talk—at the start it’s practically impossible. But when they start to tell their story, all the children listen.”
Any account of Colombia’s long, dirty war is filled with personal tragedies, but the numbers, too, tell a story: 2.3 million children have been displaced from their homes, and 45,000 children killed, according to national figures cited by Unicef. In total, one in three of the 7.6 million registered victims of the conflict are children, and since 1985, 8,000 minors have disappeared.
Since the peace talks with the FARC began four years ago, some 1,000 children have been forcibly recruited by some of the myriad armed groups in the country, 75 have been killed, and 65 schools have been damaged by fighting.
Back at Antonio García, in one of the classrooms that has been dubbed the “salón de memoria,” or “room of memories,” phrases stuck to the wall tell the children how empowering the act of telling one’s story, in one’s own voice, can be. “Writing your story, and that of your community, is making history out of what you are living through,” one of the phrases says.
“The idea is to heal our wounds, to teach them resilience and [about] the capacity we all have to overcome,” Muñoz said. “Is it sad? Yes, but it’s also happy. When they learn how to be people who can be happy despite adversity, then it’s worthwhile.”
The past year has been, by some measures, the most peaceful in Colombia for a long time, but with the end of the conflict with the FARC now finally in sight, it is not just this small corner of Bogotá but a nation that is grappling with how deal with the legacies of the longest-running conflict in the Americas.
A recently published book, Los Niños Piensan en la Paz (Children Think About Peace), collected the stories of children across the country. The pictures illustrating their accounts show a man in green combat fatigues trying to snatch a baby, a military officer crying as he sits on a chair, a volcano exploding with blood-red tears.
“It was 6 p.m., and my brother who was 16 went out to play with our brothers and sisters on the street,” writes José, 12, in one of the accounts. “A motorbike went past with two mercenaries on it, they shot him twice. It hurts a lot; when I think about it I cry.”
Another child, Maria, 11, says that she had witnessed a girl she knew being kidnapped. “The police were watching but not doing anything, I told them what was happening and they didn’t want to do anything. They took that girl, and I never saw her again,” she says.
Sergio Guarín, an expert from Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, a think tank, said the conflict in Colombia “touched all parts of society, the rich and the poor. We all have a story of violence.” But children in particular “need a lot of help and from early on, and we are not doing it.”
He recalled a lecture he gave in Neiva, the capital of a region that saw years of violent conflict, and where he said towns were marked as supporting either the guerillas or the right-wing paramilitaries that sprung up to fight them. “I was in the middle of speaking when I looked around the auditorium, and they were all crying. Not because it was a great talk but because of what they had experienced,” he said.
No one doubts the level of need, particularly when it comes to children. Angelika Rettberg, the director of the peacebuilding master’s program at the University of the Andes, one of Colombia’s top schools, said there had been a “systemic effort for several years to find a pedagogical solution” for children who have seen so much violence. “There has been a huge effort in things like peace education, anger management,” she said. “But overcoming the legacies of armed conflict will require huge investment in the education system. Much more needs to be done to overcome all that the armed conflict has affected.”
One of the big challenges in a country like Colombia is deciding what kind of interventions are best placed to help. A 2013 report by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders criticized the lack of attention that is paid to psychological care even though years of trauma can cause as much damage as a bullet.
But a study published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry suggests that Colombia is not alone in struggling with the level of need. In a review of interventions to help children in post-conflict countries around the world, from the Balkans to Sri Lanka, the authors found that it is “rare for countries under conflict to emerge with a post-conflict development agenda that includes robust attention to mental health services.”
The authors also found that while individual trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy works in high-income countries, in war zones, such treatment are rarely viable, either for cost reasons or because of a lack of professionals to carry out the work.
Talking therapies like Caminos de Paz, however, are generally low-cost, and for children like those in the Ciudad Bolivar, offer perhaps the only chance they have to talk about what has happened to them and their families.
Martha Nubia Bello, a professor in social sciences at the National University of Colombia, says first victims need recognition of what has happened to them, then practical measures to give them a new start in life, but next should come the creation “of spaces for listening, where people can go and work through their memories.”
“The end of the armed conflict means that victims can feel secure, recognized, so that they can talk ... about their traumas,” she told Semana, a Colombian current-affairs magazine, originally in Spanish. “The end of the conflict does not guarantee that the wounds will heal, but it will provide the conditions in which the victims can find the possibility of recovering.”
Gabriela Bucher, the country director for the charity Plan International (PI), says many of the workshops they run use drawing and other artistic measures to help children explore what they have been through. “But the main thing is being able to express what happened. That’s important, and something we always do in our programmes.”
Older children might have a more or less factual explanation for something that happened to them or their family, but younger children sometimes transfer the fear—drawing monsters, for example—as a way of speaking about it.
José Luis Campo, the country lead of Benposta, a children’s charity that has worked with former child soldiers and other young victims of the conflict, says when it comes to helping children recover from conflict, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “With 50, 60 years of war there are whole generations who don’t know what it’s like to be at peace,” he said. “War affects children. It affects everything they know; the schools, the countryside where they live, their families, the roads. It affects the way of living in the regions.”
But he says, investment now can reap rewards in the future. “One positive we can take is that children, despite being the most affected by war, are the ones that can recover,” he said. “If you give them a guarantee, of security, of education, health, they don’t forget the past, but they do recover. They are able to overcome it.”
The Atlantic | Laura Dixon