Giovanni, a 15-year old Colombian from the country’s Pacific coast, says he’s seen too many neighbours fall from the bullets of criminal gangs. "The friends who got mixed up in the violence are already dead," he says while playing a drum on a street in Quibdó, capital of the Chocó department where 47 804 out of the 127 000 residents are people displaced by Colombia’s decade-long violence.
According to UNOCHA figures, in 2017 alone 139 359 new Colombian IDPs were forced to flee their homes due to the ongoing conflict, and an estimated 170 community leaders were assassinated. Many were from Chocó, one of the country’s poorest regions whose jungles and rivers are home to mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations who live in a constant state of humanitarian emergency.
According to EU humanitarian partner SOS-Kinderdorf International, children are recruited for the trafficking of drugs, or as gangs' violent enforcers. They are first used as informers and transporters for money, guns, or drugs. But they quickly end up on the frontlines, forced to witness or participate in atrocities.
With €500 000 from the European Commission, the Austrian organisation SOS-Kinderdorf International helps young people escape the violence by developing protection measures in urban and rural communities. Family and community networks are strengthened to engage with local authorities to prevent and mitigate the risks of the armed conflict.
“Children are considered easier than adults to mould into combatants, as they do not appreciate the risks involved,” explains Angela Rosales, national director, SOS-Kinderdorf International in Colombia. “As a result, children often suffer forced displacement, violence, and sexual abuse,” she adds.
High unemployment rates and limited economic opportunities present few alternatives for young people, a fact that armed groups are willing to exploit. “The majority of those who live in these neighbourhoods are displaced by the armed conflict. They reach Quibdó (the regional capital of Chocó) in a very vulnerable state, including economically,” says a civil servant from Quibdó, who requested to remain anonymous for security reasons.
Luz Helena, a 17-year old student, says going to class is an act of faith. Shoot-outs have repeatedly forced her to stay locked up at home for days. "Going to school is risky. It is scary; even though school is only ten minutes from my house."
“Part of the project is the 'Canto PaZifico' musical education strategy for over 200 children who live in conflict-affected communities,” explains Angela Rosales, national director, SOS-Kinderdorf International.
The project allows children to attend workshops where they are taught musical and awareness skills to avoid recurrent violence, both within their homes and outside. The participative methodologies help the children to identify possible risks and their prevention.
In addition, their families have access to professional psychological support to cope with the traumatic effects of the conflict, a necessary step in resuming normal development and education.
This project helped empower children and open perspectives. Giovanni now dreams of studying architecture. He dreams of having a house big enough for his entire family, “with a huge fountain shaped like a soccer ball and a large pool for my brothers,” he says. “Why not dream?” he adds with a smile.