Tribal rituals help rehabilitate Colombia child soldiers

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Tacueyó (Colombia) (AFP)

Alejandro was just 15 when he left home to join Colombia's leftist FARC rebels -- one of thousands of children recruited to fight the government during the deadly decades-long conflict.

Three years on, he is back home, in school and readjusting to normal life thanks in part to a program based on the unique world vision of his Nasa Indian tribe, who live in the country's southwestern Cauca department.

"I joined the guerrillas because I was sick of being at home," Alejandro, whose name has been changed for his own safety, told AFP.

The teenager said it was easy to find those loyal to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the village of Tacueyo.

"Everyone knows who is a rebel and who isn't," he explained.

Five days later, the fighters showed Alejandro how to assemble and disassemble a rifle. "A month later, they gave me one," he said.

With a timid smile on his face, he described life in a FARC camp hidden in Colombia's Andes mountains, a four-hour walk from his home village.

Wake at dawn, clean the weapons, cook, stand guard day and night: that was Alejandro's life for five months. And then one day, he fled on foot.

"They didn't come looking for me," he said.

- Reconnecting to the sun -

Before Alejandro resumed his studies, he needed to learn how to be in regular society again. He did that thanks to a method developed by the Nasa, one of Colombia's largest ethnic Indian tribes with about 130,000 members.

The "Return Home" program was launched in 2007, two years after FARC rebels captured the village of Turibio, not far from Tacueyo.

Local leaders were in for a shock. "The rebels were using children!" explained Mauricio Capaz, spokesman for an association of indigenous groups in the Cauca department.

The program -- which has psychological, legal and social components -- lasts 18 months to two years. It is rooted in the Nasa people's way of seeing the universe.

Two community members -- one tasked with administrative matters and the other a sort of faith healer known as a "kiwi the" -- work with a psychologist and a social worker, both paid by a government agency, to rehabilitate the teens.

"It was not easy to make the authorities understand... that the traditional doctor was the most appropriate person to help the teens reconnect with their old lives," said psychologist Carlos Andres Quintero.

Aureliano Lectamo, a kiwi the, explains that for the Nasa people, "existence is connected to two realms: the spiritual and Mother Earth."

"When a person leaves home to join an armed group, that results in a spiritual shock," he said.

"You must repair that shock with rituals... the young people must go back to a place where they can reconnect to Mother Earth, to the sun, to the water."

Of his individual rehabilitation, Alejandro only says that he went to the edge of a lagoon with the kiwi the and chewed on coca leaves, the sacred plant of the Andes.

"Sometimes, you must rid the house of negative energy," Lectamo said.

- 'I thought he was dead' -

There are also five group rituals: fire for the spring equinox; sun; wind; the "saakhelo" or the sacred tree in August; and a ritual of the dead in November with drums, flutes and traditional dances.

The Nasa abandoned a similar program for adults in 2011 because the rebels considered it an anti-insurgent activity, said Capaz, the indigenous association spokesman.

The FARC -- now in protracted peace talks with the government to end a half-century conflict that has killed more than 260,000 people -- pledged last year to stop recruiting children.

Capaz says the rebels still have "at least 300" minors among their ranks, and adds that he fears once a final peace accord is in place, "many of them will be hidden."

According to official government data, 4,737 children were recruited from 1984 to 2015 by the country's various armed groups including the FARC.

"Jefferson," who is 17, has almost completed the program, which has helped rehabilitate 150 youths since 2007.

Proud of his new position in an unarmed group patrolling the Nasa territories, and of the coffee plants he is growing near his family home, Jefferson struggles to talk about his time with the rebels.

"It was an experience, but one I didn't like," he said.

After three months, Jefferson's parents and community leaders went to the rebels and demanded he be released.

"I thought he was dead," said Jefferson's 41-year-old mother, expressing her joy at seeing him "changed, less aggressive."