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Last week, protesters marched on Colombia’s Congress in Bogotá calling for better protection of former guerrillas — more than 400 of whom have been murdered since the country’s civil war ended eight years ago, a reflection of the country’s struggles to move beyond its half-century-long conflict.

Among the demobilized members of the now defunct Marxist rebel group known as the FARC are poor, rural women like Leonor — the subject of Colombian expat Paula Delgado-Kling’s poignant new book, Leonor: The Story of a Lost Childhood, which brings us the tragedy of Colombia’s child combatants.

According to more than a decade of interviews Delgado-Kling did with Leonor, she was lured into the FARC — which stands for Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces — as a young teenager and became the sexual slave of a guerrilla commander.

After one brutal battle with the Colombian army in 2001, then 17-year-old Leonor was captured and taken to a government halfway home in Bogotá, where she met Delgado-Kling — whose own awakening as a privileged Colombian youth amid the country’s violence is a parallel story in her book.

“This book is, I guess, a coming of age narrative for me as well as Leonor, from the standpoints of our different relationships with Colombia, both of which I felt were important to convey,” Delgado-King, who today lives between Boca Raton and New York, told WLRN.

“When I was in high school, in 1992, my eldest brother was kidnapped for six months, and I really didn’t know anything about what happened to him. But one thing I did overhear him say was that it had been teenage kids who held the guns and had the job of holding him hostage.

“So when I was a grad student at Columbia University in New York, I originally wanted to write a policy paper about the re-integration of children from armed groups — child soldiers. So I went back to Bogotá, and I began to get access to these government homes. It was in one of those homes that I found Leonor — who had only been out of the FARC for two weeks — and this became a different project.”

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In the 1990s, when Leonor joined the FARC, it was not uncommon for girls of her age to be recruited into the group’s ranks from countryside villages, such as those in the southern province of Caquetá where she was picked up.

Delgado-Kling said that in those days, the hard and often painful life of children in Colombia’s neglected countryside — the conditions that sparked the civil war in the first place — made them more vulnerable to FARC recruitment.

In fact, according to one Colombia tribunal investigation, the FARC recruited almost 20,000 teens between the mid-1990s through the mid-2010s. Right-wing paramilitary armies such as the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces) are also known to have conscripted thousands of minors. Both sides were also notorious for — and got notoriously wealthy from — drug-trafficking and other organized-crime activities like ransom kidnapping.

“Since Leonor was born, it was a difficult childhood, largely because her mother had a lot of children, and she really couldn’t take care of all of them,” Delgado-Kling said. “Leonor was sexually abused by her father and, as a result, suffered beatings from her mother, who blamed her, and she was then thrown out of the house.

“Her family lived very close to FARC camps, so she begins to see those camps as a refuge, a place of camaraderie. And then she is noticed by an older FARC commander, because Leonor is very beautiful. Right away she becomes a sexual possession of a man 34 years her senior. And apart from that, she’s facing the continuous, everyday stress of war with the Colombian army.”

Leonor tried more than once to escape, but was brought back to face punishments such as being caged.

But in the book — which Elle magazine calls one of 2024’s best works of nonfiction so far — Delgado-Kling makes a striking observation about Leonor: “It was in her character to reject pity.”

“That’s how she was able to survive,” Delgado-Kling said. “That is the way trauma victims find the grit and the resilience to kind of rewire the story in their heads. And that’s why it took a really long time for Leonor to make sense of her life and put the pieces back together.”

Delgado-Kling has spent more than 20 years watching Leonor piece her life together again. Today Leonor is almost 40 and a mother of two — and, after her years of difficult re-insertion therapy in Bogotá, has come full circle and is back in her hometown in Caquetá, striving to realize the happier family life she never knew as a girl.

Delgado-Kling reiterated that one of the realities that drew her to Leonor’s story was that her own, albeit stable and affluent family — her grandfather, Fernando Mazuera, had been mayor of Bogotá — was affected by the guerrilla menace of those years, including kidnapping threats from another rebel group, the M-19.

It compelled Delgado-Kling’s father to send her and her siblings to live in Toronto for some time for their safety — a decision that she feels made her more willing and able to interact later with Colombians like Leonor.

Coming of age outside the insular world of upper-crust Bogotá society, “I got to see different, more diverse views and experiences,” Delgado-King said.

“And for that reason, I believe I was able to be really more open to Leonor.”

Many Colombian expats in South Florida experienced FARC violence — and many, understandably, are bitter about it. But Delgado-Kling hopes her book might help them see former FARC combatants, especially child recruits, in a different light — and, whether they agree or not with the government’s 2016 peace accord with the rebels, to feel more resolve to help Colombia become a better country for all the Leonors living there today.

“I think the first thing we have to think about is prevention — how to prevent this sort of tragedy in the future,” she said.

“For starters, rural women like Leonor’s mother should have better access to birth control. And wouldn’t it be better if Colombia had more jobs in the countryside that are not related to drug trafficking? To harvest bananas instead of coca leaves, and have the decent roads and infrastructure out there for once to get them to market and make decent livings?

“If Leonor and I were able to build some sort of kinship and understanding, and if she was able to be so honest with me about her story and trust me with it,” she added, “then definitely there is an understanding, maybe even as women, that we can do something about this — the rights of her children, our children, everybody’s children going forward.”

Tim Padgett

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas  editor,  covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne Independent.

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Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas  editor,  covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.. His work appears under a partnership between WLRN and the Key Biscayne...