“I am who I am because of who I was” – refiguring childhoods through Colombian former child soldiers’ stories
Salamanca Sarmiento, Natalia
The recruitment and use of children in war are common characteristics of modern conflict. In 2017, the Child Soldiers World Index reported that at least 46 States still recruit and use children under the age of 18 into their armed forces across Africa, Asia and America (CSI, 2018). Researchers both within and outside of academia have striven to understand the phenomenon by looking at the reasons for recruitment, the roles played by children in the armed groups and, for those who survive war, the challenges posed by their reintegration. Central to much research is an assumption that children are victims of war embodied in the figure of the child soldier who sits at the centre of mainstream global policies and interventions as well as academic debate. This figure of the child soldier offers a condensed narrative of their lives, portraying people who were part of armed groups in their childhoods as in fact lacking a childhood, caught up in forced recruitment and military or paramilitary service, and involved in violence, experiences that do not fit normative and predominantly Western visions of ideal childhoods. Now as adults, former child soldiers require protection as victims of war and need interventions to re-integrate in post-war life. The aim of this research was twofold. Firstly to examine normative understandings of child soldiering in the Colombian context. To do this, I initially investigated how the global figure of the child soldier is enacted in Colombia, tracing the tensions between global discourses and local practices (following Tsing, 2005) through exploring of the narratives of both practitioners of children’s rights and seasoned former child soldiers. Secondly, I engaged in creative fieldwork through writing workshops with a group of Colombian former child soldiers. These workshops, entitled “Mi cuento lo cuento yo” (“I’ll be the one to tell my story”), gave space for participants to create alternative accounts of their childhoods. Writing and other creative activities enabled participants to produce accounts of their warrior-selves and their campesino-selves; both critical components of their understandings of who they are, in the present, while being reflective and critical about their past, and, in the process, teasing apart the figure of the child soldier. Finally, I contrasted these accounts with the conventional narrative embodied in the globalised figure of the child soldier. In this thesis, I argue that in the translation, back and forth, of global and local understandings of child soldiering, meaningful childhood experiences are ignored and lost. During demobilisation processes, former child soldiers need to reproduce common victim narratives of child soldiering, of forced recruitment and escape or rescue from the army, in order to make a living in post-conflict time, paradoxically leaving them unable to escape the weight of the figure of the child soldier. From the stories produced in these creative workshops, I claim that people who were soldiers in their childhoods find value in their past, and narrate their lives in a way which draws on the knowledge and experiences they developed during the war. Their accounts resist a clear separation of their time before, during, and after their recruitment into guerrillas and paramilitary groups. In their rewriting of themselves, they rescue and highlight features of their warrior self and campesino self, which they believe should be recognised in reintegration processes. Acknowledging the skills, knowledge and learning they developed through their work as child soldiers, would make material differences to their ability to make a living in a post-conflict Colombia. The normative vision of the child soldier as victim of war limits the success of reintegration processes, requiring Colombian children’s rights practitioners as well as former child soldiers to find ways to work around existing practices, with varying degrees of success. This research draws on unique creative data to provide a novel account of former child soldiers’ lives, which call into question the adequacy of existing policies for reintegration. This thesis is a contribution to the literature on childhood studies in general, and to discussions on child soldiering and rural childhoods in particular, that will be of interest to those researching diverse types of childhoods during war, and those working in disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration processes of child soldiers everywhere.