The municipality of Usme was once considered remote, far from the capital of Bogotá. But over the years, the hills in between have been populated by millions of families displaced by Colombia’s decades-long war. Today, the area is thick with settlements, including many that are unrecognized by the government; people here have no services for water or electricity and few prospects for rebuilding their war-torn lives.
Arriving in Usme, we are greeted at the center run by our partners at Taller de Vida by smiling teenagers, some shy, some eager to try out a few words of English. All have been displaced to Usme by the war. Some are healing from their experiences as child soldiers, others from horrors they witnessed in their home villages before they fled.
The teenagers stream into the brightly painted Taller de Vida center and proudly show us the beautiful murals depicting their hopes for peace. We settle into a discussion about their lives and the importance they place on coming each week to the center.
The conversation keeps coming back to the armed conflict, to the threats the youth confront everyday. “We face drug traffickers, addiction, the nightmares of the past. But the biggest threat we face is to lose our dreams,” says Luis, a young man of 18. “Because the armed conflict isn’t just up in the mountains, it’s in our neighborhoods, even here. It’s in our homes when we see violence in our families. I’m sad to say, it’s in our hearts. That’s what we are trying to change.”
The group, ages 13 to 18, arranges themselves for a dance performance; a fusion of traditional Colombian and modern forms, hip-hop and salsa. “At Taller de Vida, we don’t just learn the steps for the dance,” says Joana, who is flushed and smiling from dancing. “We learn the steps to life!”
Another boy explains, “In my village, we had only the old songs, but here in the city, we are mixed together: Afro-Colombian and Indigenous, we each bring our songs, and we mix them with the music and rhythms we discover here. It’s a way to show our diversity but still keep hold of who we are. I have my traditions, and I can share them through the dance. I feel proud of the music from my village but also excited to learn new music here and to see what we can make together that will be more than we each had by ourselves.”
We travel by van to a nearby school where Taller de Vida runs programs on weekends and school holidays. We walk into a big lunch room buzzing with happy voices and kids in colorful t-shirts and jeans. It’s like any middle school cafeteria, except that all of these children are former soldiers.
Some were kidnapped by armed groups—either the anti-government FARC guerillas or the paramilitaries associated with the government and, increasingly, with multi-national corporations exploiting natural resources in Colombia. Some children joined up as a way to escape chronic hunger or violence at home.
Whether coerced by brute force or brutal circumstances, all of these children have been exploited. Many were sexually abused, and some of the girls are mothers. Many of the children are illiterate, having missed years of schooling during their time as combatants. Others, displaced from their Indigenous communities, have only recently learned Spanish and struggle to communicate.
Taller de Vida helps these young people to heal and rebuild their lives. Through their Bambu Program, they provide 60 former child soldiers between the ages of 8 and 18 with group counseling sessions, human rights education and music and art therapy.
We can see how these young people are flourishing through Taller de Vida’s programs, but there are still so many struggles. It can feel like there’s an infinite amount of work to do. But with Taller de Vida, with our sisters worldwide and with all of our supporters, we’re doing it together. We wake up each morning ready to keep going.