Rights Of The Child: Recruits as young as eight fight for Colombian guerrillas

CHILDHOOD HAS become expendable in the remote jungles and coca tracts of Colombia after four decades of civil war. The army routinely calls up under-age soldiers for active duty, and they account for nearly 22 per cent of the force.

This year an estimated 15,000 teenage troops are serving in Colombia's army, national security units and police force, and most of them are between the ages of 15 and 17. Many of the enemies they stalk are children, too.

Right-wing paramilitaries call their young fighters "little bells" because, deployed out in front, they tend to draw fire and warn of guerrilla traps. Children as young as eight years old have been seen on patrol with these paramilitaries. They witness random torture, farmers being butchered alive, corpses being mutilated and families being driven from their land at gunpoint. With at least a million people displaced by the warfare, many Colombian families rupture.

Marxist rebels term their swarming juveniles "little bees" since they can sting before the enemy is even aware of the attack. Thirty per cent of some guerrilla units consist of boys and girls, and if captured, the army often forces them to find and deactivate the mines that they make and deploy for the rebel fighters, or to act as informants or guides. Runaways are considered deserters and often are executed on the spot by Farc (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) or the ELN (National Liberation Army). Militia, which train future guerrillas and are attacked by paramilitaries, can comprise as many as 80 per cent children. A high proportion of these are kidnap victims.

Last July, after an army offensive that killed hundreds of rebels, officials invited reporters to the battle zone before all the corpses were whisked away. Among dozens of dead guerrillas on display were several pubescent boys and a pregnant teenager.

Although peace talks are now under way, Farc rebels refuse to observe a truce and attacked 13 villages across the country. Six policemen were killed on Wednesday when young guerrillas strapped a grenade to a dog and shooed it into a police station in central Tolima state. Such tactics are like childish pranks with deadly consequences and retaliation is swift. Regardless of international legislation and a burgeoning peace movement, there's no sign of curbing Colombia's child soldiers.