- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 4, 2003

SAN JOSE DEL GUAVIARE, Colombia Demetrio Rojas wants to become a doctor. His favorite subject at school is English, and he dreams of escaping the violence that tears at his homeland.

But Demetrio, a soft-spoken 16-year-old who lives in an isolated Colombian state swarming with Marxist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups, faces almost insurmountable odds in attaining his dreams.

Educational opportunities are limited in all developing countries. But the challenges are especially daunting in Colombia, a country plagued by a 4-decade-old civil war and rampant drug trafficking.

Most Colombian children make it through grade school, but drop-out rates soar afterward as they are lured into the drug trade, recruited by armed groups or work to help their families make a living.

In the remote jungles of central Colombia's Guaviare state, where Demetrio lives, one in six teens graduates from high school. Nationwide, it's a little better: Half of Colombians earn a high school diploma.

As the sun creeps over the trees lining the Guaviare River, a cluster of children waits on the banks for a small boat, a jungle-style school bus, to pick them up.

Nearby, other kids throw fishing nets into the river or wash clothes in the muddy waters, forsaking school because their work is too important to their families.

Lacking the money to build, equip and staff schools in every village of Guaviare, the government concentrates its resources in the bigger towns, hoping children will travel in to the schools. But because so many children don't go to class, schools are often underused.

On a 10-mile stretch of road leading out of San Jose del Guaviare, the state capital, two of the nine schools are operating. The seven idle buildings contain broken chairs, blank chalkboards and bashed-out windows.

"There are enough teachers, sufficient facilities," said Roman Catholic Bishop Belarmino Correa, who coordinates education for the state government. "But there is a shortage of students due to the critical situation in the region. There are empty schools everywhere."

Colombia ranks below average among Latin American countries in attendance rates, teacher-to-student ratios and literacy, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Low graduation rates close the doors to college and professional jobs for millions of young Colombians, stunting the country's potential.

Demetrio attends a boarding school with his sister in San Jose del Guaviare. He is from Cerro Azul, a village where there are few jobs and rebels rule. The only cash crop is coca, the raw material for cocaine.

With little state presence or authority, people are murdered in the region under the slightest pretext. Demetrio's father was killed two years ago, and the family still doesn't know why.

"He was a very good person who helped everyone," Demetrio said. "It may have just been for something he said."

The trauma of losing his father has affected Demetrio, who shows a seriousness beyond his years. He is guarded, careful about what he says, especially at school, where many of his classmates take sides in the war.

After losing her husband, Demetrio's mother took over the family enterprise of coca picking for the cocaine-processing labs. Whenever Demetrio has vacation from school, he treks home to help in the harvest.

Once he left school for two years to help in the fields when his family ran out of money. He insisted on returning to school, despite being two years behind.

Each time he visits Cerro Azul, Demetrio risks being forcibly recruited into the ranks of the rebels or their paramilitary foes, who are battling for control of the region's vast coca fields.

"My mother is very nervous," Demetrio said. "She wants to make sure we don't go down the wrong road. In the street, they'd just sweep us up."

When Demetrio makes the 2½-hour bus trip from Cerro Azul to the state capital, he crosses a deadly line.

Although Cerro Azul is controlled by the rebels, paramilitary gunmen freely roam the streets of San Jose del Guaviare, and Demetrio is not safe here either.

Some children from Cerro Azul won't come to the boarding school in the state capital. They fear that because they're from a rebel-controlled village, paramilitary gunmen would accuse them of being guerrillas and execute them. It's a fate common to those suspected of being rebel collaborators.

But Demetrio vows to continue attending school until he graduates, giving himself a chance to realize his dreams of becoming a doctor and leaving this violent place.

"There are things that seem impossible," he said. "But you never know if you don't try."

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