posted by Tim Nafziger on 02/10/08 at 10:37 PM
Last Sunday (our first Sunday off in three weeks after hosting an international delegation) we biked to nearby San Silvestre Lake for some rest and recreation. We found lots of young folks playing on the muddy beach. After splashing around in the water for a while, we rented a dugout canoe and paddled into the deeper part of the lake where we took turns jumping off the canoe.
As we got ready to head home, we suddenly noticed soldiers casually walking down the lane towards the beach. Behind them we saw an army truck with young men in the back. Charletta immediately recognized what was going on since she’d just witnessed forced recruitment in Barrancabermeja earlier in the week. Any young men without their identification or papers proving they were exempt from military service were loaded into the back of the truck where they would be taken to the local batallion and strongly encouraged to begin the enlistment process.
By law any male over 18 must voluntarily present themselves at their local battalion, but the army is not allowed to come around and force you to come in. CPTers challenging forced recruitment have heard the response, “This is not illegal because we are not illegal.” That is,the military is above the law. Soldiers refer to forced recruitment as “irregular” rather than illegal, but it appears there’s no difference.
After some discussion, the team designated Michele and Tim to approach the soldiers to inquire about the “irregular” practice we were witnessing. Michele approached the soldier standing by the truck and asked him about what was happening here. He explained that they were picking up men over 18 who hadn’t served military service. While Michele talked with the soldier, Tim talked with one of the young men who was sitting in the back of the truck. After the traditional, “Where are you from?” exchange, he asked him “Do you want to join the army?”
“No,” he said, “but when you turn 18, you have to join up. It’s like that in the United States too, right?”
The commanding officer showed up and moved us away from the back of the truck. He explained that if these young men had legitimate exemptions, they shouldn’t be out at the beach on a Sunday afternoon. While he was talking to us, an older Colombian woman came up and took the opportunity to share her mind with the officer.
Soon after we started talking with the men in the truck, the soldiers decided it was time to leave. They jumped in the truck along side the young recruits and drove away. We don’t know whether we made any difference or not, but at least we were able to register our concern with the soldiers.
We’ve heard this coming Tuesday is a major military recruiting day across Colombia. The government wants to expand the size of the armed forces. Please pray for us as we consider how we can act thoughtfuly and creatively to respond to the many trucks we will likely see around Barranca picking up young men.
For more on forced recrutiment in Colombia, see Forced recruitment: An outrage continues written by the Medellín Youth Network (Red Juvenil de Medellín) and posted on the Fellowship of Reconciliatoin Colombia site. The Youth Network works partner organizations of conscientious objectors here in Barrancabermeja.