BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Deep in the Colombian jungle, child fighter Yeimi Diaz feared for her life as members of Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group held a meeting to decide whether to order a firing squad to shoot her.
In the 14 years she fought for the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels, Diaz faced two such councils.
“A war council is almost always a death sentence,” she said, recalling the way the FARC punished fighters who broke its rules. “I got lucky. A guerrilla commander who knew my mother stepped in at the last minute and voted to save my life,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
After years of skirmishes with government troops, long mountain treks and rationed food, Diaz escaped and turned herself in to the army in 2009, after finding a leaflet dropped by army helicopters urging rebels to surrender.
Around 18,000 former child fighters, and adult rebels, have quit the FARC ranks since 2003 and joined the government’s reintegration program.
A further 8,000 FARC fighters may hand in their weapons over the coming months if peace talks in Cuba with the government result in agreement to end their 51-year war, which has killed 220,000 people and displaced 6.5 million.
As the March 23 deadline for a peace accord looms, negotiators are discussing how best to reintegrate ex-fighters, while Colombians consider how far they will accept former combatants back into society.
Demobilized fighters, many of whom have spent some 20 years in rebel ranks, face significant obstacles. Often traumatized by war and illiterate, many struggle to find jobs and reintegrate into society.
Diaz says it has taken her six years to rebuild her life. Under the state reintegration program, she is paid a monthly allowance of up to $140, provided she attends school or university, takes free psychological counseling and vocational training schemes and does community service.
After learning to read and write and completing secondary school, she found work as a cleaner at a construction site.
“You have to stay positive. It’s not easy,” Diaz said. “The government provides opportunities and grants to start small businesses but it’s up to you to take advantage of them. Some people don’t. Some complain and don’t stick it out.”
Boris Folero, who joined the FARC at 18 because he sympathized with its Marxist ideology, says finding his own identity after decades with the rebels was a struggle.
“Leaving the group was painful. My personal identity was shaped there. I was formed as a man in the FARC,” said Folero, 48, who left the group in 2005.
“Before it was us, the collective. Now it’s just me. You have to reconstruct yourself, find a new identity, find out who you really are. I had to grow up. It’s been difficult,” said Folero, who works with the reintegration program.
At one government-run center for demobilized fighters in a poor neighborhood in south Bogota, Johanna Diaz is one of 860 state psychologists helping ex-fighters get used to civilian life.
For ex-combatants, many from poor rural backgrounds, adapting to a new life in the capital is hard.
Diaz helps them find a place to rent, get job interviews and write a curriculum vitae, and shows them how to use a knife and fork, take escalators, lifts and buses, and use an automated teller machine.
“We have to see ex-combatants at least once every month and form a bond with them to make sure they stay on the straight and narrow. We go to their place of work and do home visits,” said Diaz, who is helping 60 ex-fighters.
“Whether or not a person can successfully rebuild their lives partly depends on the relationship we can build with them, their families and spouses.”
Years of fighting have led to mental trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder and paranoia, driving some ex-fighters to alcoholism, drug abuse and gambling, she said.
“Everyone has ups and downs. Our job is to show them another option, that another life is possible,” Diaz said.
Joshua Mitrotti, head of the government’s reintegration agency, says integrating thousands of ex-fighters into society hinges on long-term provision of education and training, and on rural communities - where many fighters come from - agreeing to give them a second chance.
“A vocational component is going to be very important but there has to be a political component at the heart of training offered to ex-guerrillas, about how a democracy functions, because this is about the transition of people who once held arms to becoming citizens in a democracy,” Mitrotti said.
Around 650 local and international companies in Colombia offer jobs and training to former combatants in exchange for tax breaks.
But only one-third of the ex-fighters who have joined the reintegration program have found jobs in the formal sector. Most find only temporary work, as builders, security guards and cleaners.
Gaining social acceptance is another challenge, and many ex-fighters prefer to keep their past life a secret.
“Much of society sees demobilized combatants as monsters. They are very strongly affected by stigma,” said Mitrotti.
The lack of jobs makes some give in to the temptation to earn more money working for criminal gangs. “If we don’t give job opportunities the cycle of violence will repeat itself,” Miotti said.
“Just signing a peace agreement doesn’t mean the drug trafficking, the organized crime, will go away. The offer of that kind of work will remain.”
The government estimates around 10 percent of combatants who have gone through its program are involved in some sort of crime - still well below the 30 percent of ex-prisoners who re-offend, Mitrotti said.
Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, editing by Tim Pearce. Reuters Messaging: Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org