“We leave behind the war almost blind. We have few skills when we come out. But when I’m here I can forget about my problems. I’ve made friends. It’s like a family. And I like painting - it makes me feel good,” said Torres, proudly pointing to an oil painting of his on the wall depicting gunmen killing villagers.
At the center, former child soldiers and community youth leaders also work with 55 local teenagers and their families to keep them away from armed groups and local drug gangs.
“The demobilized combatants can debunk myths about what it’s really like in an armed group and tell young people about the reality - that being in an armed group is not a great adventure,” said Stella Duque, who runs the youth center.
Torres, 19, says the advice he gives to his peers makes him feel useful. “I tell them having your freedom is the most important thing you have. They [the FARC] take that away from you,” he said.
Since 1999, the Colombian government’s child welfare agency (ICBF) has looked after nearly 5,000 child combatants who have given up their weapons. The government estimates that child soldiers make up over a quarter of the 8,000-strong FARC rebel group, many of whom were forcibly recruited.
Barely literate and traumatized by war, former child soldiers often struggle to overcome their past and adapt to civilian life.
“They arrive here feeling angry, apathetic, confused, and disorientated. Many feel guilty about what they’ve done. Some have been forced to do awful things. They tell me: I don’t want to be bad anymore,” Duque said.
“When they turn 18, they’re told, ‘OK, you’re ready to go out into the world’. But they have no idea how to manage money, write a CV, and get a job," she said.
The center offers group and individual counselling to help heal trauma. Part of that involves showing ex-child soldiers there are other role models to follow.