Camilo Andrey Vergara was born in 1989 in a rural area of Antioquia, in western Colombia. Raised on the coffee and cocoa plantations, his youth with his parents and siblings was peaceful. But the armed conflict tore his family apart when he was still a small child.
“When I was little, armed groups extorted and threatened peasants, and recruited children,” says Mr. Vergara, recalling the dark days of the 1990s, when drug trafficking and violence were rampant, especially in areas rural areas of the country.
“One night when I was nine years old, an armed group broke into our house at two in the morning. They told my father that one of his children had to go with them, otherwise they would kill us all. ”
“They tried to take my 26-year-old brother, Jon Jairo. My father refused, so they shot my brother, in front of us. They then tried to take my other brother Carlos Mario, who was 19. He also refused, and they killed him too”.
As gunshots rang out at his home and his neighbors, Camilo and the remaining members of his family fled into the dark night.
Alone, in the streets of Medellin
The next day, the young boy found himself alone, and lost. He decided to walk to Medellin, looking for his grandmother. It took him two days. However, once there, he realized that without a phone number or address, it would be next to impossible to find her.
With no other options and too young to be considered for a job, he ended up living on the streets, doing stunts and juggling for change. Sometimes he went for days without eating, and at night he feared for his life. “I was beaten and threatened with weapons. My biggest fear was being caught and sexually abused. The street is another world,” he summarizes, not wanting to go into too much detail.
Eventually Mr. Vergara was reunited with his grandmother, but his joy in reuniting with her was short-lived: she was living with her uncles, who were dealing drugs at home.
Refusing to be drawn into their criminal activities, he decided not to live with them and instead found another place to live, doing what he could to survive. In time, he managed to go back to school, train as a gymnast and win scholarships and, when he was old enough, was even able to join the police, giving hope that he could play a role in justice in a country. still in the throes of violence, and find his family, of which he has not heard from since the murder of his father and his brothers.
For both of these purposes, however, he failed: living as a policeman in one of Medellin’s most violent neighborhoods, he found himself in the crosshairs of gangs who wanted him dead, and did not could not gather any information about the fate of his family. After a year and a half, he left the force, disillusioned, and moved to Betulia to teach gymnastics to young children.
“A drama had separated us and a drama brought us closer”
In 2015, a deadly mudslide hit Salgar, a municipality 30 km from Betulia. More than eighty people died, dozens of houses disappeared and hundreds of inhabitants had to flee the region. The event shocked the country and thousands of volunteers offered to go to Salgar, including Mr. Vergara.
Camilo Andrei Vergara
Caring for hungry and frightened families who had lost everything, he saw familiar faces: his parents and a remaining brother, his younger sister. “A drama had separated us, and a drama brought us together again,” he says.
It was the first time he had seen them in 15 years. “It was very hard to hear that they hadn’t been looking for me, because they thought either I had died the day my brothers were killed or that the guerrillas had recruited me.”
Although he was delighted to be reunited after so long, he took on a huge responsibility: to support the whole family, whose livelihood had been washed away by the mudslide.
With only a basic education, he took whatever job he could, working as a cleaner, gardener and, at night, a security guard at a shopping mall. The stress of working so many jobs and sleeping only four to five hours a night caused her to lose 15 pounds and her health to suffer.
Training for the future
Finally, in 2020, Mr. Vergara’s life began to change. Colombia’s National Apprenticeship Service (SENA) has won a tender from the International Labor Organization (ILO) to provide a technical education program called “Training for the Future”, to help victims of armed conflict acquire the skills necessary to enter the technical work environment.
Through the program, he was able to graduate to work in a company providing internet and telephone services, a job that involved some of the physical and acrobatic skills he had used on the streets as a child.
“It was the opportunity I had been waiting for for years,” he says. “After everything I had been through, including living on the streets, having to beg, it seemed like a dream.”
In addition to providing Mr. Vergara with vocational training, ‘Training for the Future provides him with psychosocial and other forms of support. To date, the program has benefited more than 1,770 victims of the conflict, in 27 cities across the country.
After graduating, in October 2021, Mr. Vergara received a job offer as a technician, where he receives a salary commensurate with his qualifications, with options to grow professionally.
Mr. Vergara says he wants to continue his studies and hopes to go to university. “I learned that in life material things can be taken away from you, but not knowledge,” he says, adding that he believes education is the key to reducing the violence that is still present in Colombia.
“If we want to move forward and have a future as a country, the first thing we have to think about is education. A country without culture or education is a country without vision, a country that will live on struggle and combat.”