In this third article in our “Faces of Persecution” series, we meet Juan Manuel, one of the children of the persecuted church living in Columbia (#50 on the World Watch List)–and one of the estimated 44.6 million Christians. Unfortunately, Juan’s beginnings as a child soldier “working” for the guerillas is all to common. Colombian army sources estimate that close to half of all members in the Colombian Marxist rebel group Farc (Revolutionary Armed Focrces of Colombia) were recruited as children. At its height, the group was 20,000 strong.
Juan Manuel was only 10 years old when he and 49 other children were recruited by an illegal armed group in Colombia.
The rebels offered Juan money and food in exchange for his involvement with the guerrillas. But he soon discovered they were empty promises; he was often hungry and was paid only $10 a month.
Juan was subjected to harsh training, humiliation and brutal punishments. Although he regretted joining the guerrillas and dreamed of being free again, he knew he couldn’t escape.
He would be considered a traitor and be killed.
One morning, Juan and a group of his friends pretended to be sick because they were exhausted and wanted a break from training. Several days later, the commanders miraculously let them go because of their “disease”!
Juan’s family are believers and quickly arranged for him to flee their region and live at the Open Doors children’s home. More than 50 children and teenagers from Christian families live at the safe house and receive an education. All have heartbreaking stories of forced recruitment, sexual abuse, bereavement or threats to their life.
A Visit Home–and a Turning Point
Juan was only 11 years old, and it was very painful for him to live separated from his family. He struggled to adjust to life in the children’s home, despite the caring efforts of teachers and caregivers. And he could never talk about the things that had happened to him during his time with the guerrillas.
At home, Juan’s family endured extreme poverty and persecution for their faith. They couldn’t afford to bring him home for a visit. After five years without seeing his family, Open Doors provided the money to send Juan home for a holiday.
Juan was shocked to see his family living in that difficult situation… but it was also a turning point for him. He suddenly began talking to his family about the Word of God and for the first time, he shared about the changes that God had made in his heart during the five years at the children’s home.
Not the Same Boy
Juan returned to the children’s home and began to show change. His academic results and behavior dramatically improved, and the other children in the home warmed to him, affectionately calling him Juanma (an abbreviation for Juan Manuel).
“We can see many changes in Juan,” said a teacher at the children’s home. “Now that he is aware of the reality outside the children’s home, he values living here and his friends, the people who take care of him and the education he receives. He is very happy!”
Later this year, Juan will leave the children’s home to work with his father. In the meantime, he is busy practicing guitar so he’ll be able to join the worship band at the church he’ll attend when he moves back home.
“Juan Manuel is not the same boy who entered the home almost six years ago,” one of Juan’s teachers said. “When we consider the journey he has experienced over these years … with all of the sorrows and joys… we can see that Juan is now a completely new person.”
(second photo: Juan Manuel learning how to make bread.)