Military and recruitment campaigns have pushed through the front gates of public schools in Colombia's most war-ravaged communities. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a rebel group that is renowned worldwide for its use of child soldiers, now holds campaigns in schools and uses children to convince their peers to join the ranks. Disregarding official orders, members of the Colombian army turn schools into barracks where they sleep, steal food from cafeterias and invite children to take helicopter rides and to visit military camps.
The misuse of schools by warring parties puts teachers and students at danger of being accused of siding with the enemy, as my organization, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, reported in our new study "No One to Trust. Children and Armed Conflict in Colombia." One teacher told us that an army lieutenant berated her for not permitting the army to come near the school and insisted that the school had to collaborate. The teacher threatened to call the mayor and local authorities to make the lieutenant back off. "We need to stay neutral," the teacher said, arguing that the army's presence would put students and school staff at risk of retaliation by armed groups.
Stories of teachers putting their own lives at risk to protect their students abound in areas where guerilla groups and criminal gangs have established de facto authority. As government officials are either absent or viewed as weak or corrupt, parents and their children often turn to teachers for help. One teacher even rescued one of his students, an eight-year-old boy who was abducted by the FARC, by convincing the commander to release him given the child's young age.
Such acts of courage do not always end well. In the province of Córdoba alone, 20 teachers were killed between December 2008 and June 2011, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, the world's largest federation of trade unions. "As teachers, we feel lonely in this struggle but we don't want to give up," the Vice-President of FECODE, Colombia's largest public teachers union said.
As one of Colombia's largest bilateral donors and leading trading partner, the United States can use its influence with the government in Bogotá in support of the students and their teachers. This could amplify the message we heard so clearly from the ground: all parties to conflict must respect schools as "zones of peace," a safe space for children to study. "If they had taken this opportunity away from me, maybe I would be into drugs, violence, and even be a gunman," a 14-year-old boy told us.