They arrive any way they can. Some walking for hours along a dirt track, others on well polished two wheelers. There are horses as well, donkeys and mountain-tested jeeps. In the Montes de María mountain range which straggles Colombia’s Caribbean Coast, there’s no shortage of initiative when it comes to attending a community meeting.
Despite the distances the young men travel, they arrive from eight different communities, dusty, but excited to plan for their future and take what they are learning back to their peers. Currently, they are discussing an issue that is gaining national attention in both rural and urban settings: obligatory military service and the ‘Libreta Militar.’
In the last days of the 2014 election campaign, incumbent candidate Juan Manuel Santos promised to eliminate obligatory military service in Colombia if a lasting peace accord with the FARC was reached. Within the different youth collectives and organizations in all the major urban centres, excitement was high: after years of work, the rights of conscientious objectors would finally be recognized. For many who live in both rural and urban settings, the military service presents an important interruption in their lives, as every man, over the age of 18, is required to obtain his Military ID card – Libreta Militar – proof that he served in the Armed Forces for one full year, or received an exemption/ deferment due to health reasons. Many young men from higher social spheres find ways to pay for their Libreta without sacrificing a year out of their lives, while those from lower social stratas end up making up a majority of the men in the Armed Forces.
For Elmer Herrera, a community leader from the hamlet of La Sierra de Venao in the Montes de María, the acquisition of the Libreta is a practi- cal step along a career path, for many. “The Libreta is important because it is an obligatory requirement for formal employment.” And many universities across the land require potential male students to represent their Libreta for enrollment. Rural youth face high rates of unemployment and are far less likely to graduate from high school, let alone attend a university – the lack of a Libreta is one more barrier.
The youth committee is part of large reconciliation movement involv- ing some 40 communities which were impacted by the violence between armed groups during the last decade. Memories of massacres, kidnappings, and forced displacement remain deeply rooted. It has only been recently that the communities have been able to overcome a distrust caused by violence, to work together to achieve common goals in infrastructure, healthcare, education and land ownership. For many, like “conscientious objector” Elmer Herrera, participating in the conflict, is not a solution towards achieving peace. “Having suffered the scourge of war and the death of relatives” Herrera is convinced that he does not want to experience these horrors again.
Technically, victims of the armed conflict are able to obtain an exemption from military service, if they are registered with the nation’s Victims’ Unit. For those who have never registered or are not considered official victims, it is more difficult. Conscientious objection is technically a right under the 1991 Constitution; in practice, there is no legal framework that allows access to this right.
Irregularities are common, including illegal roundups known as ‘Batidas’ in urban areas, where those without libretas are directly transferred to military bases. For María Eugenia León, coordinator of the conscientious objection and nonviolence program of Bogotá-based NGO Justapaz, the challenge is “not only the effective engagement of all rights guaranteeing institutions and the effective dissemination of the right to conscientious objection, but also to raise awareness among institutions of their responsibility to protect this right.”
Juan*, from Barrancabermeja, was studying at a seminary when he went to resolve his situation with the mili- tary. He was told by an officer: “what I was studying didn’t count because I had not reached the fourth semester. At 9 pm a bus arrived and took us to another military base. They threatened that if I did not shoot the guns, they would send me to jail.” He was held for three months until his mother was able to contact León, who is accompanying his case in the courts.
Justapaz is currently looking at the legal status of each young man from the Montes de María to establish the specific route they must follow in order to access their rights as “objectors.” León believes that, “the future seems more promising, because of the negotiations taking place between the government and the FARC. In this context, different people are seeking initiatives or ways of building peace which don’t involve weapons.” And with the promised abo- lition of mandatory conscription, there will also be more ways for a future generation of Colombians to contribute the well being of their country without having to have fired a gun.
*Name has been changed to protect his identity.