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Teaching Colombia's young to survive war

24 august 2011, 12:23
Children at this elementary school in Colombia play at being moles burrowed beneath their desks -- a deadly serious game as it could save their lives if they need to crouch for cover, AFP reports.

Kids here are never far from the frontline of a decades-long rebel and drugs war, so emergency preparedness classes center not on responding to an earthquake or avalanche, but on how to survive if caught up in conflict.

"In the case of bombing, we shelter like moles under our desks," explained teacher Giovanni Munoz. "If there are gunshots, we quickly cross the corridor like ducks."

Toribio, population of just 30,000 inhabitants, is a predominately indigenous town in the southwestern department of Cauca.

The town is on the country's red list of localities under particular threat from the conflict with the rebels.

For nearly five decades, leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have waged an insurgency here that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, including many innocents caught in the crossfire.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine with 350 tonnes exported in 2010, according to UN figures -- an illegal drugs trade that fuels the rebel-led war.

FARC have historically sheltered deep in Colombia's impenetrable rainforests but are increasingly beginning to make their way out into more open territory, putting civilians at greater risk.

Last year, 282 people were kidnapped in the South American country -- a 32 percent increase compared to 2009.

Civilians who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time often get caught up in attacks or become victims of exploding landmines, problems that have plagued Toribio.

Mayor Carlos Banguero said his small town suffered 76 attacks in 2008, 45 in 2009 and, after a relative lull in 2010, the number of attacks is creeping up again.

On July 9, an explosives laden bus blew up in the center of town, killing five people and injuring hundreds more.

-- 'Express their feelings' --

There have been four subsequent confrontations in the region between rebel fighters and police or soldiers.

The school, with about 600 students, seems particularly vulnerable as it is situated next to Toribio's police station.

The de facto bunker is a popular target for the rebels, who have been known to take aim at it from the surrounding hillside, even in broad daylight.

When the shooting dies down the teachers do their best to calm the shattered nerves of their young students.

"After the gunfire ends they don't pay attention to their school work any longer -- they just want to talk about what happened," said principal Maria Helena Santacruz.

Pupils are taught methods to reduce stress. One sees them lie on their backs like starfish, arms and legs apart, trying to relax.

Santacruz has even had a native healer visit to help reduce fear and tension at the school, where absenteeism has soared as a result of the perennial violence.

Art, she said, is another way to help the children get their fears and anxieties off their chests.

"We get them to draw so that they have an outlet and are able to express their feelings."

Santacruz displays one particularly poignant artwork by 10-year old Victor Hugo Gomilla, whose home was demolished in a recent bomb attack that tore off his father's arm.

The child was able to utter a few halting words about his sketch.

"They destroyed our houses, they destroyed everything," the boy murmured without raising his gaze. "There were a lot of people who died."

By Ibar Aibar and Luis Robayo

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