Apartado in north-west Colombia has been called the most dangerous place in the world for a child to grow up. But it's also home to a remarkable resistance movement - led by children. For declaring war on violence, they've been shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sally Ramsden reports
Seven-year-old Luz lives in a hot, sweaty little town called Apartado in the heart of the Uraba region, north-west Colombia. Deep in the killing fields of Colombia's dirty war, it is, some say, the most dangerous place in the world for a child to grow up.
In the distance are brown hills rising to mountains where the guerrillas hide out; encircling the town are sweltering plains full of banana plantations where the paramilitaries hold sway; wrapped around the outskirts of Apartado a fringe of squatter camps is crammed with women and children displaced by the fighting.
Three years ago, in the middle of the night, armed men came to the one-room shack on the edge of town where Luz lives and dragged her father outside. Then they ordered her mother and her five brothers and sisters to come out and watch. They sliced off part of her father's arm, then shot him in the head. Next they tortured her mother and her eldest sister, before killing them. Then they threatened to kill Luz and the other children.
According to Luz's sister Sandra, 23, now responsible for bringing up the younger children, the armed men accused their mother of taking in washing for the guerrillas. "But if she did, she didn't do it knowingly. Maybe she washed clothes for someone who was a guerrilla supporter without knowing it. Maybe there was another reason. And, anyway, knowing why they did it won't put our family back together again."
Luz listens to what her sister is saying but remains silent, swinging in her makeshift hammock, watching the soldiers patrolling the muddy tracks that pass for streets outside. She hasn't spoken much since that night and rarely sleeps without having nightmares.
Here in this maze of wooden shacks Luz and her surviving family have become another statistic, a few more peasants uprooted from the countryside to add to Colombia's 1.5 million internal refugees. They are just part of the trickle of rural families who arrive every day following the latest massacre or murder threat. There are no TV cameras to record their tragedy and, because they have not crossed an international border to seek refuge, little assistance.
But in this town of despair, a remarkable resistance movement has been born. The children of Apartado are standing up to the gunmen and demanding peace. Their astonishing bravery has been recognised with a place on the shortlist for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, the first time in the award's 98-year history that children have been shortlisted.
Civilians living in Colombia's war zones are not simply caught in the crossfire; they are directly targeted by the right-wing paramilitaries and the left-wing guerrillas - accused by all sides of complicity with the enemy. The Uraba region suffers levels of violence eight times higher than the national average in Colombia - a country torn apart by conflict for the past 40 years, with the highest murder and kidnapping rate in the world and the third largest internally displaced population after Angola and Sudan.
The area is a stronghold of the best known of Colombia's paramilitary leaders, Carlos Castano. Paramilitary groups were set up in the Eighties to protect the interests of rich landowners in areas with a strong guerrilla presence. They moved into Apartado four years ago, ousting the guerrillas and embarking on a killing spree against civilians.
According to Amnesty International and other leading human rights groups, some of the killings carried out in Uraba and elsewhere are joint army-paramilitary operations, despite continuing official denials. Usually they're called anti-guerrilla offensives. Mostly it is civilians who are killed.
Apartado is a place where everyone looks over their shoulders and listens out for the roar of approaching motorbikes. The paramilitaries parade openly on giant, gleaming machines in a casual uniform of denim jeans, pale blue shirts and sunglasses. Taxi drivers, shop keepers, businesses, all pay compulsory "taxes" to the paramilitaries. Those who refuse disappear. Some of the gunmen don't look much older than boys such as 17-year-old Wilfrido Zambrano.
Wilfrido lives in another poor "barrio" on the other side of town. His father abandoned the family when he was five. Some of his earliest memories are of stepping over corpses on his way to and from school. "At six years old I didn't know who was doing the killing," he says. "All I did was cry. Sometimes they'd throw bodies into the playground during the night and we'd find them the next day as a warning to us all. We'd walk past dead people we knew just outside the school gates."
He's lucky to have made it this far. The shanty towns on the outskirts of Apartado are almost empty of men. "Fifteen of my male relatives have been killed," Wilfrido says. "Of all the boys who I grew up with on this street, only two are still alive. I'm one of them. Six more are dead. The rest have joined armed groups or disappeared."
Apartado's cemetery is lined with rows of recent gravestones, mostly young men and fathers. This year there are one or two burials a day, says the woman selling flowers at the cemetery gate. "It's been a quieter year than some," she adds.
Many of the mourners bringing flowers to the graves each weekend are teenagers, remembering their friends. Wilfrido is among them. Last year three of his classmates and a little girl from his neighbourhood were mown down in a massacre in the local supermarket.
Growing up in a place like this it's hard to see beyond the violence. "I used to feel very negative. I wanted to join an armed group and be like the killers," Wilfrido says. "I wanted revenge for my family and friends. And I needed the money and a sense of belonging." Somehow he realised there was another option, "another way in life without arms", as he puts it.
"It began when I started helping out at school aged nine or ten. Sometimes my teachers would leave me in charge of the younger children if they had to leave the classroom. I liked the responsibility and trust they put in me. It helped me believe I had something to offer others."
Today Wilfrido is still at school but spends most of his spare time working with a group of teenage volunteers helping younger children like Luz recover. Every weekend he's out in a field with a handful of other teenage volunteers organising games and activities for younger children.
El Retorno de la Alegria (The Return of Happiness) is a recreational programme supported by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which gives children caught in the conflict the chance to play and to help each other come to terms with their experiences. Today the participants sing songs, join hands, paint their faces, decorate their hair, read books about children like themselves, and talk to each other and the older ones about their lives.
Blanca Nery, 15, is one of the volunteers. Her father was killed by seven masked men while she hid under the bed. "I feel better when I'm helping other children in my situation, but they also help me," she says. "They give me their confidence and friendship and we share our experiences together." Blanca's father is just one of many on the grisly roll call of the slain.
Diana Cruz, 16, volunteer co-ordinator, saw her father shot dead in front of her. Johamil Perez, 16, volunteer: father shot dead in front of him. Gloria Gomez, 15, volunteer: father and brothers killed. Among the younger participants: Jorge Eliecer, 9, whose oldest sister was killed by guerrillas, says he likes to come here and play with the other children who understand his situation. Ten-year-old Jonathon Enrique's best friend Julie was shot dead in the street less than a year ago.
Every one of the 30-odd children present has lost someone close to them. As they play they're also learning about children's rights and about building peace. The right, for instance, to recreation, to be heard and, most importantly for the children of Colombia, to live in peace.
In the absence of professional psychologists and therapists - who won't come to a place like Apartado because it's too dangerous - these children are not only looking after themselves but are teaching the adults about peace. The Return of Happiness is the work of the Children's Movement for Peace, a nationwide network of youngsters calling for an end to the bloodshed in Colombia.
In the past four years the movement, which began in Apartado, has built a nationwide coalition of young peace activists using the 1991 United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child as their foundation. The catalyst was a document drawn up by a group of Apartado school children, including Wilfrido, as part of a United Nations study on the impact of armed conflict on children.
Within a year of publication of "The Declaration of the Children of Apartado", a special election took place in which almost three million Colombian children voted for peace and rights. Colombian peace groups and international organisations such as the International Red Cross and UNICEF helped organise the event, but the initiative was the children's own. Their success encouraged a record turn-out in an ensuing referendum in which 10 million adults voted overwhelmingly for peace. Since then the Children's Peace Movement has persuaded the government to ban the recruitment of under-18s into the army.
In recognition of such achievements the movement has been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. This is the second year that Wilfrido and his peers have been nominated - by Jose Ramos-Horta, the winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in East Timor.
Whatever the outcome of the nomination and of the peace process, the Children's Peace Movement has already made two priceless contributions to the future of its country. First, there is the support and hope it offers children whose lives have been torn apart by violence. Second, as these children grow up, many of them will become pacifists, joining and strengthening the growing call for an end to the war.
This year Wilfrido has received a series of death threats. He now fears that he may have to leave Uraba at any moment. But already the children of Apartado have given people who felt themselves powerless in the face of the violence something new to fight for. In Colombia's bloody civil war, this tragic town may yet come to symbolise peace.
Past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize
1998 John Hume and David Trimble for their work in Northern Ireland
1996 Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta in East Timor
1993 Nelson Mandela, leader of the African National Congress, and FW de Klerk, president of South Africa
1989 The 14th Dalai Lama
1983 Lech Walesa, founder of the Solidarity trade union in Poland
1979 Mother Theresa of Calcutta
1964 Martin Luther King Jr
COLOMBIA: TORN APART BY 40 YEARS OF WAR In 1948 tensions between Columbia's landed elites and the democratic opposition erupted into civil war. Political disputes turned to blood feuds that still fuel the violence today. About 35,000 people have died and at least 1.5 million people have been displaced in the past 15 years. Peace talks stalled earlier this year.
More than 80 different ethnic groups in the country of 40 million survive in the hinterlands under constant threat of displacement by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug gangs or the army. There are no official refugee camps, so they often end up in squatter communities, like Apartado. Recently there has been an exodus of wealthy and middle-class Colombians seeking safety abroad. Since April this year, an estimated 1,200 families have arrived in Miami.
There are two main guerrilla groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC).
Snatching hostages is a common tactic; in July this year at least 1,200 people were being held. Extortion and the drugs trade also fund the fighting.
It is estimated that around 6,000 children are fighting for either the rebels or the paramilitaries.