When Sebastian Cadavid was recruited to join the Farc guerilla group in Colombia he had little idea of how it would shape his future. Lured with promises of cars and money the 12-year-old didn’t hesitate to sign up.
Sebastian spent four years fighting with the guerillas, receiving intensive ammunition training – but no schooling. When he was captured by the army at 16, Sebastian was faced with a world he was unskilled and unprepared to join.
“I was sent to Bogota,” said Sebastian. “To a reform house where street criminals were sent. And I had to find a job, in a busy city where I knew no-one and had no skills. I was scared and nervous – it was the first encounter I’d had with society since I was 12.”
The majority – 70% – of Farc members were illiterate, giving the recently demobilised guerrillas little chance of finding work, let alone sustainable, full-time employment.
“Many just go into construction, where the pay is bad and the work conditions are terrible, but at least you don’t need to know how to read,” Sebastian explained.
“It was so difficult for me to get any work when I came out of the Farc. I had no skills, and who would employ an ex-guerrilla?
“I moved back to the countryside and found work on a coca farm [the leaf used to make cocaine] – the only thing I knew how to do – and eventually ended up getting back into narco-trafficking.”
Sebastian’s story is not unusual. Although the government is offering the 7,000 recently-demobilised Farc members two years of education, it is insufficient to allow them to compete against other Colombians, particularly in the current economic landscape.
Unemployment in Colombia rose to 9.4% in 2017, making it the country with the highest rate in Latin America after Venezuela.
But it’s not just ex-guerrillas who are struggling to find work as a result of poor education caused by the conflict.
Karen Carvajalino started Biz Nation, a social enterprise, in 2016 with her two sisters in a bid to train victims of the conflict and former guerillas in vocational skills, and support them to set up their own businesses.
She emphasised the importance of education in healing her country’s wounds and providing a stable, peaceful future.
“We work with a significant amount of vulnerable people who haven’t had the chance to finish school or attend university, and so aren’t prepared for the world of work and can’t break the poverty cycle,” she said.
“We’re trying to help people adapt to society after such a long conflict.”
Ms Carvajalino says it isn’t just ex-guerrillas who struggle to reintegrate into society, but also the hundreds of thousands of people who fled the war. A 2017 report found Colombia has around 7.2 million internally displaced people.
“We believe that the victims are just as important as ex-Farc members because they have also been severely affected by war. Millions of children have had their education disrupted, and fled to cities where they don’t have the skills to find urban employment.
“And it’s not just children, many adult victims come from rural areas where they mainly worked in agriculture and they moved to a city where they needed another set of skills.”
Lack of education
Ms Carvajlino adds she is “extremely worried” about the number of former guerrillas who do not have access to productive education.
“Yes they are getting basic education – learning to read and write – but this is not workforce or technology skills, and won’t give them any competitive edge.”
William Forerro Pinella, a former Farc commander who left in 2003 and now works with the Ministry of Defence, has similar concerns.
“It was very complicated for me to get work after I left. I wanted nothing more than to integrate into society, but I wasn’t allowed. There are many people who do not want peace and who refuse to accept us. We are seen as traitors.
“Ex-Farc members are not getting the education they need to make them level with other members of society.
“There is also still a lot of prejudice and stigma against Farc members, and so most employers will choose a non-Farc candidate over someone who has been in the guerrillas.”
However the country’s Labour Minister Rafael Pardo insists reintegrating Farc is not a challenge.
“There are 12,000 former members of Farc so the unemployment rate won’t be a problem,” he said.
“It’s not a hard task to bring former guerillas back into jobs. There have been a lot of good reactions from companies to hire and train former guerrilla members.”
He admits the issue of stigmatisation could pose a problem for the ex-guerrillas, and added: “We do need to reduce polarisation of people who were in the past members of armed groups. The government has to show the advantages and benefits of reintegrating Farc members.”
Mr Cadavid eventually received training to set up his own shoe workshop, which he runs from his garage, and for every pair of shoes he sells, he contributes one to pair to a vulnerable child.
“I want to make sure these children know there is hope that they can start their own business, wherever they’re from, and they don’t have to go into drug trafficking.”
However, he added he is one of the lucky ones.
“I have many friends who regularly go hungry because they cannot find work. Who is going to employ a 50-year-old man who can only just read and write but has no other skills?
“The issue is not giving us education. The issue lies with giving us the skills to work so we can rejoin society.
“Otherwise peace will be impossible.”
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