Children spearhead the fight for peace

20th November 1998 at 00:00
Colombia

The small town of Apartado in the heart of the fertile Uraba region, north Western Colombia, is one of the most violent places in the world with a murder rate over a hundred times higher than in the United States. This is where Farlis Calle, now 17, grew up in a tiny wooden house near the banana plantations where her parents work. And until recently she'd never travelled abroad.

But Farlis is one of the founders of the Children's Movement for Peace which has succeeded in turning peace in her war torn country into a national priority and been nominated for next year's Nobel Peace Prize as a result.

In recent months she has toured the world meeting other children, including in Belfast, where she has just taken part in a special peace summit organised by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) who support her work.

"My family is still intact thank god, which is unusual where I live," Farlis says. "But what motivates me is the anguish and fear I see all around me and the fact that tomorrow my family could be the next ones crying."

Children in Columbia are caught in a bloody battle between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the army. More than a million people have fled the violence to become refugees in their own country.

No where is safe. Earlier this year two children were caught in the crossfire in a pitched battle at a school in Apartado. Many combatants are children under 18 recruited or press ganged into killing and kidnapping.

Says Farlis: "One of my worst memories is the time when guerrillas stormed a school looking for the mayor, took one of the children and beheaded him in front of all the others." The victim was a nine-year-old family friend.

As leader of her school's student council Farlis, then 14, helped to draw up the "Declaration of the Children of Apartado", as part of a United Nations study into the impact of armed conflict on children.

Says Farlis: "It was the first time we'd ever thought about what we wanted to do about the violence. The paramilitaries had just massacred 70 people and everyone was afraid. Our declaration called for an end to the violence and for respect for our rights as children."

From there the children of Apartado built a peace movement tied to child rights using the 1991 United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child as their foundation.

The Convention guarantees all children basic human rights such as life, food, shelter and education as well as the right to have a say in matters which effect them. TodayNov 20, International Child Rights Day, marks the signing of the Convention by almost all states, including Columbia.

Within a year the young peace activists had organised a special election in which almost three million Colombian children voted for peace and rights. This paved the way for an overwhelming vote for peace by 10 million adults in a national referendum held last year.

The new Colombian president Andres Pastrana has since become the first government leader to meet with the guerrillas in an effort to open dialogue. Says Farlis: "But people are still being killed. We need to be very strong now - there's still a lot of work to do."

Sally Ramsden

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