Cuba gives scholarships to Colombians, including ex-rebels

As a medic for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Jhony Guependo saved a comrade who stepped on a land mine from bleeding to death. He also stitched up guerrilla fighters who had injured themselves with machetes while building camps deep in Colombia's rainforest.

But Guependo, 25, says he never had any formal medical training. The former rebel is now trying to fix that, and build a new life for himself, by studying medicine in Cuba.

"I was always known for being good at healing people," Guependo said, just a few hours before departing for Havana on his first ever international flight. "Now I want to become a doctor so that I can help vulnerable people."

Two hundred young Colombians will travel this year to Cuba to pursue medical degrees, including 22 former FARC rebels, as part of a scholarship program that is financed by the island's communist government. The first batch of scholarship recipients left on a flight for Cuba on Tuesday.

It is being rolled out as Colombia strives to find new occupations for former rebel fighters, who in many cases lack formal schooling and have spent most of their lives in guerrilla camps.

"It's a tough transition," says Guependo, who joined the guerrillas 10 years ago when he was 15. "But I would encourage my comrades to stick with this, because war doesn't offer us any solutions now."

More than 6,000 rebels laid down their guns after Colombia and the FARC signed a peace deal that includes reduced sentences or legal benefits for guerrilla leaders and guaranteed representation in the country's congress.

But finding jobs for the rank and file has been a challenge and in some areas of the country former rebels have reportedly abandoned transition camps to join criminal organizations.

Participants in the Cuban government's medical scholarship scheme have said they would like to return to Colombia after completing their degrees, and serve in remote communities where doctors are few and far between.

Scholarships were also offered to dozens of young men and women from remote areas of the country who were not combatants, but whose families do not have enough money to send them to universities in Colombia.

"I want to be the first person in my family with a college degree," said Johan Arenas, a 19-year-old from the southern province of Meta who was admitted into the program.

Arenas says his family was forced to flee their hometown at the turn of the century due to fighting between the guerrillas and paramilitary groups. But he said he had no problems with having former guerrilla members as his new colleagues, because "resentment doesn't mix well with peace."

For Guependo, the former FARC medic, it will be his first time leaving Colombia.

"It will be sad to leave everyone behind," Guependo said. "But in life you have to make sacrifices to become someone and chart a new path for yourself."