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
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
beyond his years. ``Not bad, huh?''
Kid power is gaining steam in Colombia, a nation wracked by virtual civil
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
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
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
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
empowered the country's youth leaders.
``Things have changed,'' said Mayerly Sanchez, 14, a ninth-grader who is
Bogota's Youth Council. ``Before, no one took our opinions seriously.''
Mayerly credits the increasingly public demands of youth leaders with prodding
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
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
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
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
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
Later this month, children will join a caravan to an Amazon jungle area
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
ground -- although that appears unlikely.
Leaders of the ELN, which has about 5,000 members and is independent of
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
Adult sponsors of the Children's Peace Movement are sensitive to criticism
they take advantage of the youths.
``A lot of the people ask us: `Why do you involve children in peace issues?'
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
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
their ranks, some as fighters, others as servants and scouts.
One third of the estimated 5,000 right-wing paramilitary forces are believed
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.' ''