The Miami Herald
October 15, 1998

             Kid power: Colombian youths vie for Nobel Prize

             By TIM JOHNSON
             Herald Staff Writer

             BOGOTA, Colombia -- Javier Lobo, barely 11 and in the sixth grade, has
             become such a public personality that his dad lets him tote the family cellular

             It's no wonder.

             Javier is one of thousands of busy young activists who have turned the Children's
             Peace Movement into a phenomenon in Colombia: On Friday, the movement
             learns whether it has won the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize.

             ``We're among the five finalists,'' Javier says assuredly, speaking with a confidence
             beyond his years. ``Not bad, huh?''

             Kid power is gaining steam in Colombia, a nation wracked by virtual civil war
             where adults often feud and children's rights get trampled. Supporters of the
             Children's Peace Movement say youngsters gave the initial boost in 1996 to
             surging civic activism toward peace in this troubled nation.

             Two years ago, 2.7 million children voted in a national plebiscite on respect for
             human rights that stunned Colombia with its turnout and organization. The
             plebiscite generated civic courage among adults. In 1997, some 10 million voters
             tucked an additional green card in ballot boxes for municipal elections that said
             simply: ``I vote for Peace, Life and Freedom.''

             Impressed by the initial youth plebiscite, 1996 Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos
             Horta visited Colombia twice and later offered an appeal to the Norwegian Nobel

             ``I am deeply moved by these children, who are totally committed and determined
             to achieve peace in Colombia,'' wrote the activist from the Indonesian-controlled
             island of East Timor. ``I believe that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the
             children of Colombia would have an extraordinary impact on the peace movement
             in that afflicted nation.''

             The nomination marks the first time the Nobel Committee has considered the
             children of an entire nation for the prize, which is worth $975,000.

             Competition is tough. Among the 139 reported nominees are ailing Czech
             President Vaclav Havel, the French aid agency Doctors Without Borders, and
             players in the Northern Ireland peace process.

             Nonetheless, the nomination alone is a triumph, children here say, and has
             empowered the country's youth leaders.

             ``Things have changed,'' said Mayerly Sanchez, 14, a ninth-grader who is active in
             Bogota's Youth Council. ``Before, no one took our opinions seriously.''

             Mayerly credits the increasingly public demands of youth leaders with prodding the
             5,000-member National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgency earlier this year to let
             more than a dozen combatants under age 18 return home.

             Young leaders are celebrities

             As the Children's Peace Movement has gained strength, several of its early leaders
             have become minor celebrities, appearing on television interview programs and
             offering opinions on a gamut of issues.

             ``One was invited to the United Nations. She says the worst thing that happened
             to her was to turn 18,'' making her ineligible to continue in the Children's Peace
             Movement, said Patricia Bernal, national youth coordinator for the umbrella Peace

             The role of adults has been critical. The Children's Peace Movement idea arose
             from within the Peace Network. UNICEF, at least a dozen other groups and the
             National Voter Registry also got on board.

             But since then, thousands of children have organized regional councils across the
             country, and rallied groups such as the Boy Scouts and Red Cross volunteers to
             hand out pamphlets and stickers that say ``I'm a Builder of Peace'' and ``This is
             Peace Territory.''

             Later this month, children will join a caravan to an Amazon jungle area where
             negotiators from the 15,000-member Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
             (FARC) insurgency will meet envoys of President Andres Pastrana in early
             November for the first peace talks since the beginning of the decade.

             Youths demand role in talks

             Some youth leaders are demanding a role once the peace negotiations get off the
             ground -- although that appears unlikely.

             Leaders of the ELN, which has about 5,000 members and is independent of the
             FARC, met with civic leaders last weekend at a secret mountain site in northwest
             Antioquia state to set an agenda for formal peace talks, which are expected early
             in 1999.

             Adult sponsors of the Children's Peace Movement are sensitive to criticism that
             they take advantage of the youths.

             ``A lot of the people ask us: `Why do you involve children in peace issues?' We
             tell them because the children have already gotten involved in the war,'' said
             Susana Sanchez of UNICEF.

             Indeed, the state Office of the People's Defender says hundreds of thousands of
             minors have been affected by Colombia's violence, which has taken at least
             35,000 lives in the past three decades. Among the facts the office provides:

               About 340,000 children were forced to migrate with their families between
             1985 and 1995 because of bloodshed.

               Colombian guerrillas are believed to maintain at least 2,500 boys and girls within
             their ranks, some as fighters, others as servants and scouts.

               One third of the estimated 5,000 right-wing paramilitary forces are believed to
             be under 18.

             Chilling survey results

             When People's Defender officials surveyed minors who had served in guerrilla
             ranks, they found chilling results: 18 percent of the minors said they had killed at
             least one person, 40 percent had fired a gun at someone, 80 percent had seen
             dead and mutilated bodies, and 91 percent had taken part in at least one armed

             As they await word from Oslo, leaders and sponsors of the Children's Peace
             Movement dream of what a Nobel Prize would do for momentum toward peace in

             ``The peace process would get a big jolt,'' said Ana Teresa Bernal, national
             coordinator of the Peace Network. ``To win a Nobel Prize at this particular
             juncture, especially for the children, would be a way to tell the world: `Support us. We
             exist. We need your solidarity.' ''