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Arts center helps youths in Bogota shun guns, drugs

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AlertNet/Anastasia Moloney

(Read caption) Former child soldiers dance at a youth community center in Usme, a deprived neighborhood in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

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Several hooded gunmen, brandishing machetes, drag a girl with her hands tied behind her back from her home. The audience is gripped.

Performed by a youth theater group, the play and its teenage spectators are different from most. All are former child soldiers.

Some have witnessed violent scenes like this, common in Colombia’s nearly 50-year-old conflict. Others have perpetrated them as ex-members of illegal armed groups, many with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

The theater project is one of several activities on offer at a youth community center in Usme, a deprived hillside neighborhood on the southeastern fringes of the Colombian capital Bogota.

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Over the past 16 years, the center, run by a Colombian non-governmental organization, Taller de Vida, has worked with scores of former child soldiers from both sides of the war - leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries - to help them return to civilian life.

For Camilo Torres, who served six years in FARC ranks, the center is a lifeline and a place where he can find solace through art.

He deserted the rebel group two years ago, and has since exchanged his AK-47 rifle for a paint brush. Instead of digging trenches, fighting government troops, and trekking through mountainous jungle terrain, he now enjoys weekly theater, dance, and art classes.

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