How Colombia’s child soldiers are trying to begin again

February 8, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Rome, Italy, Feb 7, 2017 / 06:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Colombia is the only country in the Americas where child soldiers can still be found.

Despite the recent signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, it’s estimated that some 6,000 minors are still fighting for the guerrillas, though the numbers aren’t exact.

However, what is known for certain is that thousands of youth in the country hit 18 after spending years of their childhood in armed combat.

While the phenomenon is typically associated with Africa, it’s a surprisingly raw reality for Colombia, since poverty and domestic violence often leave many youth desperate, making the desire to leave home and join criminal gangs or, in this case, guerrilla forces, seem like an exciting alternative.

This was the case for Catalina and Manuel – two youth from difficult backgrounds who left home and joined forces with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), fighting in their ranks for several years until traumatic events eventually drove them to leave.

In a documentary on Salesian efforts to help troubled youth in Colombia, Catalina shared her heart-wrenching story, recounting how ever since she was little “I had issues with my stepfather. He got drunk and beat me, he always gave me bruises.”

“He hit me with hot sticks, straight from the fire. I had problems with him because he tried to abuse me,” she said. While she was able to resist her stepfather’s advances, when she attempted to tell her mother what happened, “my mother never believed me.”

Catalina described how when her stepfather would hit her mother, she would defend her, but sometimes her mother hit her as well.

“It was too much,” she said, explaining that “I grew to hate my mother.” She eventually started smoking, partying and using “basuco” – a paste used as a base for cocaine – before attempting suicide.

However, one day when she while she was out she heard a sound like “metal against metal.” When she saw that it came from FARC guerrilla fighters, she immediately left to join them at age 13.

While at first being with the guerrillas seemed “like a dream,” Catalina, who was handed a gun that was bigger than she was after just eight days in the guerrilla camp, soon found herself asking “what have I got myself into now?”

Describing the most traumatic moment during her time with the guerrillas, Catalina explained that she and her boyfriend at the time were among 44 people, including many children, who arrived at another camp.

When night came, she and her boyfriend were alone when around eight helicopters attacked their battalion.

Soon “something collapsed on me and I fell in a deep sleep. I felt sleepy and in a stupor,” she said.

While her head was still spinning, her boyfriend told her to run because the Colombian army was nearby, so “I ran as fast as I could.”

Catalina recalled how her boyfriend covered for her as she ran, but was shot and killed during the attack. “It’s tough when you share a lot with someone and they kill him,” she said, noting that she still wears a necklace he had given to her.

After experiencing the traumatic death of her boyfriend and many other friends, coupled with a sharp distaste for the disparity of how different members of the guerrillas were treated based on their status, at 16 Catalina eventually summoned the courage to run away, despite knowing the guerrillas would kill her if they ever found her.

Similarly, Manuel recounted in the documentary how he ran away from home with his brother when he was just eight-years-old due to poverty.

“We didn’t have much at home, so my brother and I decided to hit the streets together,” he said, adding that they eventually joined FARC forces simply out of curiosity.

“In the wilderness, your life starts to be a weapon,” he said, explaining that daily concerns quickly shift from simple things to something “as significant as taking a life of another. In the end, it was normal to kill someone.”

Manuel then recalled the moment his brother was killed for disobedience. Being the type of person who did what he wanted whenever he wanted to, Manuel’s brother began to break the rules in the camps they lived in.

“He didn’t change, he kept doing it and they decided to kill him,” Manuel said, explaining that he was able to say goodbye, but felt lost once his brother had been executed.

Since his brother was like “a mom and dad” to him, Manuel felt that after his brother’s death there was nothing left for him in the guerrillas, so he left, eventually ending up at the Salesian-run Don Bosco City in Medellin, where Catalina had also ended up.

The two youth, who used fake names for the sake of protection, are now both 19, and have been able start a process of healing and reintegration into society with the help of the Salesians at the center.
 
The Don Bosco City in Medellin focuses specifically on helping youth, and has so far helped 1,300 youth from lives of brutality, violence and emotional turmoil. A similar center in Cali has in its 15 operating years save some 2,300 youth from the same fate.

Services offered in the “city” include rehabilitation projects and psychological support, since many of the youth that come through have lived through traumatic and violent events.

Many of the girls who come have been abused, while some of the youth have even forced to choose between family members, kneeling on the floor at gunpoint and pointing out who lived and who died.

Since many of the girls have lived in brutal conditions, learning to be tough and to fight, part of the services provided at the center include teaching the girls what it means to be a woman through activities aimed at expressing their femininity.

A final phase of the program provides education and workforce development, since many of the youth dropped out of school at a young age and have an incomplete education when they arrive.

Both Catalina and Manuel have gone through the final “reinsertion” phase of the center, and are pursuing careers. While Manuel is learning technical engineering, Catalina is hoping to study at university to fulfill her lifelong dream of being a nurse.

The director of the center, Salesian priest Fr. Rafael Bejarano, was present at a Feb. 2 news conference on the documentary, alongside James Areiza, coordinator of the projects of protection and prevention at the Don Bosco city.

Bejarano told journalists that what the Church is doing, “without belonging to any political party, is to support the work the national government, together with the FARC, are doing: building together.”

“It’s not about demanding the guerrillas demobilize and give in their weapons, but about moving forward together,” he said, noting that this type of cooperation is the only way for Colombians to build lasting peace after the country’s 52 year conflict.

Since 1964, as many as 260,000 people have been killed and millions displaced in Colombia’s civil war.

According to Human Rights Watch, with more than 6.8 million people forcibly displaced due to the conflict, Colombia has the world’s second largest population of internally displaced people, with Syria in first place.

In August 2016 a peace accord between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was finally reached following four years of negotiations in Cuba.

However, the agreement was narrowly rejected in a referendum Oct. 2, with many claiming that it was too lenient on FARC, particularly when it came to kidnapping and drug trafficking.

A revised agreement was signed Nov. 24, and sent to Colombia’s Congress for approval, rather than being submitted to a popular vote. The reformed accord was approved Nov. 30, with revised features including the demand that FARC hand over assets to be used for reparations, a 10 year time limit for the transitional justice system, and FARC rebels’ providing information about their drug trafficking.

Since the agreement took effect abuses attributed to FARC forces have fallen sharply, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the country’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), continues to commit serious abuses against civilians such as kidnapping, murder, forced displacement and child recruitment.

In his comments to journalists, Fr. Bejarano said that despite the unrest, the real Colombia “isn’t known in the world.”

Describing the country as “beautiful, multi-cultural, with an enormous natural wealth,” he said Colombians want peace, but the ability to dialogue and to build a proper “political culture” are still a work in progress. This, he said, is why the popular vote was against the referendum.

Catalina, who was present with Manuel at the new conference, said that for her the days leading up to the referendum were “moments of joy,” since in her mind and in the minds of many others with her background it meant that “no more children will be there (with the guerrillas), it’s going to be different, we will be able to return to our homes.”

Both she and Manuel live in separate camps away from their families, but are able to communicate via cell phones and, in Catalina’s case, rare visits.

Although she was sad when the popular vote rejected the referendum, Catalina said she feels a lot of “interior peace,” which is the first thing people must work for. If true peace is to be achieved, people have to “think about the other, not only ourselves,” she said.

Both she and Manuel are hopeful about the situation, saying it comes down to making a daily commitment to work for peace.

As far as reintegration, Catalina noted that “everyone makes mistakes,” and that for certain people, there will always be a hole in their lives that can’t be patched up.

“There are many people who hold a grudge for what happened, for the massacres they lived and don’t forgive,” she said, but added that for the youth who have come through the Don Bosco City, “we have an opportunity.”

“There are many who don’t want it, but we must give the opportunity despite all these (things),” and must make the most of what they themselves have received.

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This surfing school in Chile was created for kids with Down syndrome

February 7, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Santiago, Chile, Feb 7, 2017 / 01:58 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- On Sundays, Felipe Pereira is full of enthusiasm. That’s because on Sundays, the 21-year-old goes to Paradise Beach to enjoy the sea along with his friends and to learn how to surf.

For children and young adults with mental disabilities, this is more than a sport. It is the Waves of Hope free surfing school, based in northern Chile’s Antofagasta region.

The school is directed by Chilean surfing enthusiasts Claudio Morales, Catalina Daniels and Pablo Marín. They launched the program five years ago.

After knocking on a lot of doors, running pilot projects, consulting with specialists, and coming up with financing, they began their first class with six surfboards and six wetsuits.

Each Sunday from December to February, the three directors and other volunteers welcome up to 15 children with Down syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome and autism, giving them completely personalized classes adapted to each person’s condition.

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Pereira is a very sociable young man who does folk dancing, goes swimming, and works in his school’s bake shop. He told CNA that what he likes most about the surfing classes is “getting on top of the surf board and catching the waves.”

“I like the sea. I really like to go,” he said. Pereira also liked his instructors, saying, “I like how nice they are to us, I love what they do.”

Instructor Catalina Daniels told CNA that her students “challenge you to change. You can’t go on being the same.”

“They are a tremendous example of how love is the driving force of the best things, the best times, the best efforts. Affectionate warmth is the best investment and with them it’s incredible,” she said.

Daniels also discussed the impact of faith, saying “the person who knows Christ, Jesus, who by his mercy came into your life, can’t be the same. You have to be better, more loving, more understanding, more tolerant, because they are.”

Surfing requires strength, balance, agility, and a lot of technique. But what is most important, the Waves of Hope founders recognize, is the relationship between the instructor and the student. This breaks down the barriers of discrimination to make way for integration.

Many Chileans have never spoken or shaken hands with a person with Down syndrome.

“So very motivated volunteers come, but the first day they don’t know what to say, they don’t know how to act, they try to help, but even they freeze up,” Daniels told CNA.

But the students laugh and tell jokes, and eventually, relationships are formed.

“They have an incredible time. They float, row, do group dynamics, take up the surfboard. They have demonstrated that they can do a lot, they have overcome many difficulties related to their condition,” Daniels said.

She explained that the problem is rooted in discrimination and the lack of proper integration.

“They were born struggling with frustration, they were born already disadvantaged,” she said of the students. “It was really hard getting support from the businesses. Why don’t we see girls with Down syndrome promoting products in advertising? Because the beauty of our students is an atypical beauty and no one wants it on their front page.”

“Chile is a country that creates handicaps,” she reflected, adding that trends to de-value family, school and the Church also cause problems for the disabled.

Daniels recommended that people draw closer to God: “to give love you have to be with the Creator of love…When you have love, you have to give it, you have to give it shape, make it real.”

Claudio Morales, another director, added that the volunteers are “the big winners” of Waves of Hope.

“Children with Down syndrome capture your heart in an incredible way,” he said. “I believe that all the volunteers have a changed way of looking at life.”

 

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Reflections on the March for Life

February 7, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Washington D.C., Feb 7, 2017 / 09:51 am (CNA).- Two weeks ago, America witnessed a historic event. Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 44th annual March for Life and heard from the highest ranking White House official to ever grace the March for Life stage – Vice President Mike Pence, along with top-ranking WH official Kellyanne Conway.

The day was a bit of a blur for those of us who were there, but in reflecting back on that historic event two weeks ago, I am reminded of the critical theme that we chose this year for the March for Life – “The Power of One.”

This year’s theme was conceived one night early last Spring during a “Tenebrae” service at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington D.C. The service, which means “shadows” in Latin, falls within the context of Holy Week, when Christians worldwide celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the passion, death and ultimately resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.

At one point within the service, all of the lights in the cathedral except one – a candelabra with eight candles lit on the altar – are out. As meaningful lamentations from the Old Testament are read, one by one, each of the eight candles are snuffed out until the entire cathedral is pitch black. The darkness is stark and uncomfortable, but then everything changes. A single candle at the very top is lit, symbolizing Christ. It is notable and surprising how that one little candle creates an enormously different environment than the darkness. Literally, every square foot of that cathedral was touched by a little bit of light, and that little bit of light changed everything.   

“Even the smallest person can change the course of history” is a powerful line from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and this line truly encapsulates “The Power of One” theme.  

Working to build a culture of life can sometimes feel like we are working and living in the darkness. I experienced that darkness back in June, one day after the Supreme Court made two life issues-related decisions: The first essentially gave abortion clinics a pass, and decided to treat them differently than other outpatient facilities with regard to health standards and regulations. In the second ruling, a family pharmacy from Washington State, after battling for many years, was told that they either had to violate their consciences by filling life-destructive drug prescriptions or close up their business.

As a pro-life American who doesn’t identify with either political party, approaching the close of difficult years with the Obama Administration on life and religious freedom issues, these decisions were somewhat of a final blow as we looked towards possible continuation of such policies over coming years.

But as I reflected on those two decisions and the other trials that our nation was facing, I was reminded of that little candle and the power it had to light the entire cathedral. I had to remember that no matter who is President, who is in Congress or what Supreme Court decisions are made – as significant as they are – every single one of us has the power to make a change in this world, and there is always hope. Thus, the theme of this year’s March for Life was born.

On Jan. 22, Americans from every inch of this country gathered in our nation’s capital for the historic 44th annual March for Life, not only to commemorate that dark day when Roe v Wade legalized abortion in our nation, but also to celebrate life and the countless lives saved throughout the years since abortion was legalized.

The speakers for this year’s March for Life embodied “The Power of One” theme in a way I could have never imagined. Vice President Mike Pence joined us as the first-ever vice president to address the March for Life, alongside top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway – both of whom are inspiring role models, exemplifying how one person can truly change the world.

Abby Johnson shared her story of being a former Planned Parenthood director who became an outspoken pro-life advocate and founder of “And Then There Were None.” Benjamin Watson spoke about his life outside of the NFL as a father of five, a strong Christian, and a pro-life advocate in the public square. The youth presence at the March for Life is always incredible and this year we were thrilled to hear from Katrina Gallic, a student at the University of Mary. She spoke about the many buses her school brings every year to the March for Life and how, despite the blizzard of 2016, they continued as witnesses to life; even after getting snowed in on the Pennsylvania turnpike.

The March for Life is made up of tens of thousands of people who have the capacity to be the candle in a world that sometimes feels dark. This is the true power of one – every person has the power to be a light in this often dark world. We’ve been marching strong for 44 years, and this year, more than ever, there is so much opportunity for change. We will continue to march until a culture of life and respect has been restored in the United States; a culture where abortion is unthinkable and the inherent dignity of the human person is respected from conception to death.

 

*Jeanne Mancini is the President of the March for Life.

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An Indian woman became a nun…because of elephants?

February 7, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Orissa, India, Feb 7, 2017 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Nine years ago, Christians in the Kandhamal district of Odisha, India suffered the worst attacks against Christians in modern times in the country.

Around 100 people lost their lives and more than 56,000 lost their homes and places of worship in a series of violent riots by Hindu militants that lasted for several months.

But since the devastation, the local area has seen an “unprecedented” increase in religious vocations, including Sr. Alanza Nayak, who became the first woman from her area to join the order of the Sisters of the Destitute.  

Sr. Nayak told Matters India that she decided to dedicate her life to God through the poor and needy after she heard “how a herd of elephants meted out justice to the victims of Kandhamal anti-Christian violence.”

A tenth-grader at the time of the attacks, Sr. Nayak said she remembers escaping to the nearby forest so she wouldn’t be killed.

A year after the attacks, a herd of elephants came back to the village and destroyed the farms and houses of those who had persecuted the Christians.

“I was convinced it was the powerful hand of God toward helpless Christians,” Sister Nayak told Matters India. The animals were later referred to as “Christian elephants,” she added.

After completing her candidacy, postulancy and novitiate with the order, Sr. Nayak took her first profession on October 5, 2016, at Jagadhri, a village in Haryana. She is now a member in the Provincial House, Delhi.

On January 26, more than 3,000 people from Sr. Nayak’s village of Mandubadi, honored her with a special Mass and festivities.

Her mother told Matters India that she was “extremely fortunate” that God has called her daughter for “His purpose.”

Sister Janet, who accompanied Sister Alanza at the thanksgiving Mass, said that while materially poor, the people of the area are “rich in faith, brotherhood and unity.”

The congregation of Sisters of Destitute was founded on March 19, 1927, by Fr. Varghese Payyapilly, a priest of Ernakulum archdiocese. It has 1,700 members who live in 200 communities spread over six provinces.

The violence against Christians in the Kandhamal district has been religiously motivated. It started after the August 2008 killing of a highly revered Hindu monk and World Hindu Council leader, Laxshmanananda Saraswati, and four of his aides.

Despite evidence that Maoists, not Christians, were responsible for Saraswati’s murder, Hindu militants seeking revenge used swords, firearms, kerosene, and even acid against the Christians in the area in a series of riots that continued for several months.

While the intensity of the violence has subsided since the 2008 attacks, violence against Christians in Kandhamal has continued.

In July 2015, Crux reported on two unconfirmed reports of two Christians who were shot to death by local police in the district while they were on a hilltop, seeking out a better mobile phone signal to call their children, just one example of the ongoing hatred of Christians in the district.  

Rev. Ajaya Kumar Singh, a Catholic priest who heads the Odisha Forum for Social Action, told Crux that such violence is common in a place where the social elites are upper-caste Hindus and the Christians are largely lower-class “untouchables” and members of indigenous tribes.

“There’s a double hatred,” Singh said. “Because Christians are from the lowest caste, they’re untouchable, and because they’re Christians they’re seen as anti-national … they’re treated worse than dogs.”

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Proceeds of Vatican art project will go to children’s hospital in CAR

February 7, 2017 CNA Daily News 0

Bangui, Central African Republic, Feb 7, 2017 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Inspired by Pope Francis’ trip to Central African Republic in 2015, a children’s hospital in the country will receive a substantial donation from the proceeds of a mercy-themed art project.

The project, entitled “Christo’s box, between Art and Mercy, A Gift for Bangui” was presented at the Vatican Museums in May 2016, during the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

When the project came to the Vatican, Pope Francis made it clear that he wanted the proceeds to go to Bangui Pediatric Hospital in Central African Republic.

Pope Francis made a surprise visit to the hospital during his trip to the conflict-torn country in November 2015, and was struck by the lack of equipment.

“I felt great pain,” the Pope said during his Nov. 30 in-flight press conference returning from Bangui to Rome. “Yesterday, for example, I went to a pediatric hospital, the only one in Bangui and maybe in the country, and in the intensive care unit they do not have instruments of oxygen. There were many malnourished children there, many of them, and doctor told me that the majority of them will die soon because they have a very bad malaria and are seriously malnourished.”

On Monday, Vatican Radio reported that 200,000 euros ($215,000) were raised by the project and given to Pope Francis, who said the proceeds will be used at the hospital to care for all poor children “without distinction of religious belonging, because all children need care and attention.”

Christo, the artist, is a Bulgarian-born U.S. citizen and contemporary artist perhaps best known for his pieces that involve “packaging” or wrapping. Featured in the Vatican exhibit was a “packaged” fragment of Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens.’”

At the launch of the project, the then-Vatican Museums director, Antonio Paolucci, said that “Many years ago, Pope Julius II used Raphael to celebrate himself and his Church, (…) five centuries have gone by and another Pope is using a Raphael for a work of mercy to help one of the poorest and most marginalized countries of sub-Saharan Africa.”

Bangui Pediatric Hospital was also a beneficiary of a December 2016 concert in Rome.

The Central African Republic has suffered civil war since December 2012, when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed an alliance, taking the name Seleka. They left their strongholds in the north of the country and made their way south, seizing power from then-president Francois Bozize. Their president was in turn ousted in a negotiated transition in January 2014.

In reaction to the Seleka’s attacks, some Central Africans formed self-defense groups called anti-balaka. Some of these groups, mainly composed of Christians, began attacking Muslims out of revenge, and the conflict took on a sectarian character.

The Seleka declared an independent Republic of Logone in northeastern Central African Republic in December 2015.

Central African Republic held presidential elections between December 2015 and February 2016, resulting in the March 2016 inauguration of President Faustin-Archange Touadera, but violence continued nevertheless.

At least 29 people were killed during clashes between Seleka and anti-balaka forces in October 2016.

Thousands of people have been killed in the civil war, with hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes.

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