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Faced With Peace, Former Rebels In Colombia Find New Ways To Survive

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to hear from Colombia, where last month, a Marxist rebel group known as the FARC officially put down its weapons and half a century of fighting was over. Now, 7,000 former FARC guerrillas have to figure out what to do next, how to make a living. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: At a guerrilla camp in southern Colombia, newly disarmed FARC members play soccer. Thanks to a peace accord signed last year, there have plenty of time for sports and for contemplating the future. Some plan to help the FARC organize a left-wing political party but many are itching to break free.

RAUL BALLESTEROS: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Raul Ballesteros, who runs the camp's Internet cafe, says he wants to become a computer systems engineer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Others consider teaching or farming, but most FARC members are high school dropouts who lack job skills. After years of combat, some suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. Also troubling is Colombia's mixed record at turning combatants into productive civilians. Over the past 25 years, thousands of fighters from a variety of guerrilla and paramilitary groups have disarmed.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The most high-profile success story is former guerrilla Gustavo Petro, who was elected mayor of Bogota in 2011. But legions of ex-fighters have ended up jobless. Some have joined drug trafficking gangs. To prevent that from happening, the Colombian government offers psychological counseling, high school equivalency courses and job training.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This program in a Bogota slum teaches former combatants how to cut hair.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Student Johanna Nunez says it's been a huge challenge to take responsibility for her own life after spending 11 years blindly following orders in the FARC.

JOHANNA NUNEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In the guerrillas, Nunez says, "you just do what you're told. But then you start thinking that if you leave, you won't be able to do anything by yourself and that you won't find a job." The Colombian government is pushing private companies to hire ex-guerrillas. It's a tough sell because the FARC funded its war in part by extorting businesses and kidnapping their executives for ransom.

HUMBERTO MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Humberto Mora is vice president of Coltabaco, the country's largest tobacco company. He says lending a hand will help ensure that ex-fighters do not take up arms again. Coltabaco has hired hundreds of former insurgents to grow tobacco, though efforts to put them in more skilled positions have failed.

MORA: We tried to hire some ex-guerrillas from FARC and unfortunately, we couldn't find basic skills like accounting, like communicating.

OTIS: Some have started their own businesses with the equivalent of $2,500 that the government provides to each ex-combatant. Maria Hernandez, who deserted from the FARC several years ago, used her startup money to buy four sewing machines and open a small tailor shop. With thousands of newly disarmed FARC members embarking on a similar path, she offers some advice.

MARIA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They need to study, to learn new skills and to save whatever they can," she says, "because life as a civilian is tough." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.