TRES ESQUINAS, Colombia - It's hard enough to be a 15-year-old anywhere in the world. In rural Colombia, adolescence has a particularly hellish twist.
For Giseth, a high school student, there are the eternal boy problems and lots of homework. Then she has questions about the future, about whether to become a biologist or a veterinarian, and whether Colombia's insurgents will let her live long enough to decide.
"Everyone hears the same stories. The guerrillas or the paramilitaries will come and take us away by force," she says, playing with a ponytail. "You think about whether it might happen. You think about it all the time."
With Colombia's war intensifying, fueled in part by a $1.3 billion infusion of mostly military aid from the United States, guerrillas and paramilitary groups are searching everywhere for young recruits to serve on the front lines.
When volunteers fail to step forward, the "draft" is imposed, and teen-agers such as Giseth are among the preferred choices for induction, sometimes at gunpoint, human-rights groups say. Others are lured away by the promise of action, adventure and a life free from the encumbrances of parents and schoolwork.
But for an insurgent, few routes for escape exist, human-rights groups say. Exposure to wanton acts of barbarity often becomes routine, warping any vestiges of youthful innocence. And new evidence is surfacing to suggest that some teen-agers are being sexually abused.
"The guerrillas tell you: `I am your mother. I am your father.' They tell you what to do and when to do it," says another 15-year-old, Constanza.
"And no matter what it is, you have to do it - even if they tell you to kill another person."
The riverside town of Tres Esquinas is governed by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the nation's largest insurgent group, which has been fighting the government for more than three decades. The FARC has been the target of most complaints by human-rights groups about the use of minors in combat, although anti-rebel paramilitary militias also reportedly use children in combat.
The FARC says it does not kidnap children or forcibly recruit minors, although it acknowledges that children are among the guerrillas' combat forces. FARC spokesman Andres Paris says the rebels will often take in children orphaned by war. If a child decides to leave home voluntarily to join the guerrillas, he will be accepted into non-combat roles.
"We have a rule that says we cannot accept any recruits under the age of 15. Some people think that a youth of 15 is still a boy, but we say that the social drama of Colombia obliges even children of 8 or 9 years old to do many things that do not relate to their age," Paris says.
Nobody knows for sure how many children are serving with the insurgents, but the United Nations Children's Fund estimates the number at 6,500.
Colombia's war is only one of 25 conflicts around the world in which an estimated 300,000 children under age 18 may be serving in combat roles, according to UNICEF.
"We think it is totally unacceptable to have a teen-ager walking around with guns, fighting," says Carel de Rooy, chief of the UNICEF mission in Colombia. "Such a child should be in school. It's a gross violation of the child's rights to take them out of their normal environment."
Colombian authorities say the green-uniformed bodies of teen-agers are being encountered increasingly after battles between government forces and the insurgents, particularly the FARC.
"The vanguard of the guerrilla fronts is made up of minors, who are being turned into cannon fodder," says Luis Eduardo Cifuentes, Colombia's national human-rights ombudsman. "As such, they are the first to fall" in combat, or to become "instruments of murder."
In Tres Esquinas, a town of 500 in southern Colombia, the FARC is the only authority because the town falls within a 16,000-square- mile haven created by President Andres Pastrana two years ago. About 10 youths from the town have left in recent years to join the FARC, local schoolchildren say.
Within days of the haven's creation, parents inside the zone began complaining to government authorities that their children were being abducted by the guerrillas. Parents of such children rarely agree to be interviewed, saying they fear for their safety as well as for their children's.
Even outspoken children such as Giseth and Constanza say they will not tell everything they know about the rebels' activities in the zone because they fear retaliation.
But hard evidence is mounting that the FARC is putting guns into the hands of children as young as 11 and 12 years old.
Carlos, another 15-year-old in Tres Esquinas, says the normal rules of rebel recruitment are well-known within the town.