Child Soldier: An Epidemic

January 18, 2013
A little boy is at school talking to his friends about a girl he likes when suddenly he hears gunshots. There is chaos for a moment as everybody tries to get away from the foreign noise. Then there is complete silence as armed soldiers and the principal of school take center stage.

As names are called, the faces behind them drop in fear. The children called stand in line with the soldiers. It dawns on everybody, you are 12 years old and you will probably never see these marked friends again. They are now soldiers who will most likely not make it home. Any day now it could be your name that is called.

The scene just described is from the movie Voces Inocentes, a Mexican movie about the civil war of El Salvador. The events are based on the real-life experiences of Oscar Torres, the writer of the screenplay. Our high school had the unique honor of hosting a presentation by Mr. Torres.

The event was organized by Ms. Tonya Barba, currently an art teacher at SHS. The idea came up 2 years ago in a Spanish class of hers. She showed Voces Inocentes and a student asked, “Senorita, can we meet Chava?”

Chava is the main character, a 12 year old boy. The character is based on Oscar Torres himself.

The idea lay dormant for a couple years until recently. This time, Ms. Barba decided to pursue the idea. After some time and effort she managed to contact Oscar Torres and arrange a presentation, but that was only the beginning.

“We had a short amount of time…Other organizing was that we had to ask permission to see if it was ok. Also contacting flights…booking a hotel. What would we have him do while he was here? Students were writing letters and making sketches. Counting how many seats are in the Auditorium, how many don’t work; contacting other schools, St. Joe’s, St. John Neumann’s, COAR; seeing how parking is; tickets and that’s just a little bit of it,” stated Ms. Barba.

Torres arrived at SHS the morning of December 4 and spoke to hundreds of people during periods 1, 2, and 3. Torres came across as funny, approachable, entertaining, and informative. He gave the audience a more in depth idea of the effects of war on children and what happened to “Chava” after the last scene. Some were silent as others shed tears.

One of the major issues Voces Inocentes deals with is the atrocities concerning children as child soldiers. Over 400,000 children are being used as soldiers in war today, in over 20 countries.

Torres has experienced the fear of being recruited as a child first hand.

“[My experiences] have motivated me to not let that happen again. Anywhere... especially in my country and to the children there. And so I've let the world know what happened there in hopes that the memory of it will keep government leaders from making the same mistakes again…not forgetting is the key to keeping the peace found alive,” commented Torres.

Torres and the team that made the movie had a hard time introducing it to the American audience. It was eventually released with an “R” rating, though it is considered a family movie in other countries, such as Japan.

“I believe we protect children from the wrong things in this country. The more information, the better. Let them see the world, even if it is through film,” stated Torres

In order to spread the message about this atrocity as well as to heal himself from the trauma of war, Torres wrote the screenplay Voces Innocentes.
“First to heal. Then to shed light on something many didn't know had happened in my country and even more, that is still happening around the world, like the use of children in wars,” said Torres.
Fortunately, Oscar Torres never had to serve as a child soldier. Not everybody is so lucky. From 1979 to 1992 the civil war of El Salvador raged.
“It was to fight imbalance,” said Sister Sheila Marie, a COAR volunteer during the end of the war, from 1992-1996. COAR was started as an orphanage in 1980 by Reverend Ken Myers in reaction to seeing all the children refugees and orphans due to the war. It was named Comunidad Oscar Arnulfo Romero because of Reverend Myers great admiration for Archbishop Romero, an outspoken critic of the war, who was killed earlier that year.

A current resident of the Cleveland area from El Salvador served in the rebel or guerilla forces. He prefers to remain unnamed in respect to those not lucky enough to live through the war and be here to tell their story.

“There were two different sides, the government’s side and the rebel’s side. The government’s side, they were the ones recruiting kids from the countryside. On the other side there were the kids and grownups who decided to join the rebels and fight against the government. I was part of the guerillas, which was pretty much volunteer, because you believe in the cause. I know a lot of kids that were taken by the government. The fighting and the training were pretty much similar, we were still kids and it was pretty much the same impact, on a personal level,” stated the source.

What had started as an uprising soon turned into a full-fledged war. The rebels turned into the guerillas and the government army fought to suppress them.

“The government was being run by the rich people and the military at this time. There were so many troubles in those days, and it started very simple, people would go on the streets and complain about the conditions and the elections that were not fair. Back in those days, during the Reagan administration…they were doing anything possible to stop anything that sounded communist or left wing. In that respect, they were involved in the Salvadorian government for 12-14 years, providing guns and training and all that. In those days, groups of students and teachers and union workers decided to join the FMLN, the main forces of the guerillas, and that’s why the war started in the eighties. It started very simple; people went on strikes…later on it became more edgy. The government started forming groups called death squads, going to people’s houses, taking whoever they could find, and taking them to the street and killing them. There were many different groups and they all had their own areas…eventually the government started going to the countryside and taking the kids to join the military because there were a lot of supporters for the civilian population,” continued the source.

From 1990-1992 negotiations started. The army knew they would be forced to reduce the size of their army soon due to the peace accords, so they recruited people to make their numbers larger to make sure they still had a decent size military when it was reduced.

“Weekly or monthly you would see the trucks rolling into town and you would see them grabbing the kids off the streets. Since this had been going on for a while…the word got out because the trucks had to come down the main road, somehow they had this network, that all of a sudden you would see all the young boys disappear, and they would go hide somewhere,” said Sister Sheila Marie.

For her part, Sister Sheila and her co-volunteers did their best to hide the children.

“If we had a youth activity going on and we had to take the kids to another parish, we had a jeep and we could squeeze in about 8 kids…and then we had a truck that could carry about 20-25 kids. All the boys would have to come in the jeep with me and my partner would drive the truck with all the girls because the boys had to be enclosed. So we had to keep protecting the boys,” commented Sister Sheila.
Nevertheless, some boys were still taken by the army. When the missionaries found out about these incidents, they would call the encampments to find out where the child was, and then complain to the US guide at the base, since child recruitment was illegal, and the boys would usually be sent back. Yet this did not guarantee that they would not eventually be taken again.
“There was one case though of a young man who was 18 or 19 but had serious mental illness problems and he was recruited a couple times, and we got him out. And the last time it was the priest I was working with who worked on that case…but we were having a hard time find out what cartel he was in, he was way across the country. By the time we caught up with him, they had given him a gun and he shot himself, “said Sister Sheila.
The children saw so much pain and brutality amongst their loved ones, and felt completely powerless. Soon, some began to take things into their own hands.
Not only were children ripped away from their families and shed from their innocence, they were put in front lines of battle with a gun and very little training. Sometimes they would die and sometimes they would run and later be chastised for it. Fear ruled their lives.
“A lot of the fighting was kids against kids. Even the older guys were in their twenties, so there were a lot of young people,” said the anonymous source.
“From my experiences, brief as they were, I think many of the child
soldiers who went to be guerillas had seen such brutality by government forces, and so many unjust murders of innocent people, especially women and children, and brutalizing by soldiers, that they took up arms out of rage at the injustices done to poor people who had
no way to fight back,” stated Father Bob Sanson, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Strongsville for 20 years, who has visited El Salvador 7 times.
The brutalities were endless, and people did not even have the opportunity to heal for fear of the death squads.

“You don’t need to be involved in the war in El Salvador to see what happened, it was so visual. You saw bodies everyday in the streets; it was a lot of horrible things you would see in the streets. You couldn’t say anything, the dead squads used to work in a way that if they had some tip that someone who was involved in the left wing movement, they went to their homes looking for him, and if they couldn’t find him, they would find his sister and take her, rape her, and kill her,” stated the unnamed source.

Yet eventually the war ended and the child soldiers were able to go home, but the Salvadorians would soon realize this was not the end of their problems.

“The people are still affected indirectly. It affected their economy big-time. I can’t say what it was like before, because I wasn’t there during that time, but there was censorship of what you listened to, what you see, what you say, who you hang out with. Not that much today. The political parties that are there today, they are the base of the main groups that were fighting against each other in the past. They still use our money. For the effects, you’ll see it with the people when you talk to them, they’ll have the biggest smile, but you wouldn’t know, they’re telling you the saddest story, but they’ re still smiling and its probably the only culture that I’ve seen that. They would give you anything and everything that they have, but you don’t really see the hurt, you don’t see them crying. They share the stories with us and we are the ones crying, but for them that’s normal, that’s the way life is,” said Ms. Barba.
“I got my days, sometimes, that I don’t feel good about it. I have a great life; I’m not going to complain about it, but I left home when I was very young. My life is pretty much divided, this is a new life for me, but it could be worse. A lot of people were in jail, a lot of people were tortured, a lot of people were killed; so I think we’re the lucky ones, we’re still alive,” related the Cleveland man who served in the war. His words summarize the attitude of a culture and society based on optimism.
The war started as an effort to make the country fairer economically, but after 12 years of fighting and atrocities, the Salvadorians did not have it left in them to negotiate the peace accords in their favor.
“The poor campesinor are still
mostly dirt poor, with no land of their own. More children go to school, but those who can escape the country get out. Those who have enough money may be able to go legally, but most have to hire a "coyote”, who will lead them through the desert, over the "Wall", etc,
where many of them die in the process. But still, so many have escaped to the USA that the largest influx of cash into the country is not from coffee, but from Salvadorians in the USA who sent money back to their family, and hope some day to bring them to the USA. There is a terrible atmosphere of danger and fear - gangs run rampant, like the
MS 13, and they rob whole busses, etc. They run protection rackets, etc. Professional people don't want to live in this atmosphere if they can emigrate,” commented Father Bob Sanson.

Father Bob established the sistership between St. Joseph’s and San Jose Villanueva in El Salvador, in order to raise awareness locally of the situation in El Salvador. The sistership tries to help the children in El Salvador achieve an education.

They would also soon realize that many of the children coming home and even the ones who hadn’t left weren’t children anymore. Some were hardened and cold, others were vulnerable and anxious. They had experienced things most adults can’t even imagine and nobody knew what to do.

“After the war, when they started to resettle, some of them came back but they didn’t talk about it a lot. We saw some of them come back…some families told us stories of the fact that their children came back and they were able to have them stay with the family any long because they had become pretty hardened,” said Sister Sheila.

Death was not the only distancer of families. Many families were separated due to moving out of the country to escape persecution or make money to send back to their families. Most of the time the entire family couldn’t afford to go together, and the rest of the family was sent for once the first person had settled.

Sometimes family members chose to stay, such as if they were in university or fighting with the rebels because they believed in the cause.

“I came to the States because my family already lived here for many years. I saw my family after 10-11 years, in California I lost a lot of the closeness with my family because we didn’t see each other for so many years,” commented the former guerilla soldier who wished to remain unnamed.

Some people continued to be haunted by these memories.

“Most of the kids today are my age, and they don’t always know they have problems, because back then what we used to see wasn’t normal, but it became normal for us because we saw it every day. To me, when I came to the States, that’s when it started hitting me because I was in a whole different culture. Kids here, especially, are able to say “yes”, “no”, “I don’t like it”, things like that. We never had that in our brain. You go out on the street and you have rights, nobody can say bad things to you. Just to start feeling safe and able to speak up, that was something a lot of people didn’t experience before. That creates all kinds of different feeling about friends, and you start to be more emotional about things…A lot of people had problems. They became violent and they don’t know why, but I was lucky to pretty much deal with a lot of things and be able to look up for help. That helped me a lot,” explained the soldier.

The civil war of El Salvador ended over 20 years ago. The practice of using child soldiers ended with it. Right?
Wrong. As stated earlier over 400,000 children are being used in war today. One of the most prominent and institutionalized use of child soldiers today is in Uganda, by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), under the leadership of Joseph Kony.
This conflict started in 1986 when Yoweri Museveni became President of Uganda. Alice Lakwena started the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) in opposition, with the hope of freeing northern Uganda from government oppression. When she was exiled, Kony took power, claiming to be a distant cousin of Lakwena.
Kony changed the name and lost some of the support Lakwena had gained. In turn, he started kidnapping children to fill his army, losing all support. This organization itself became the oppressor of northern Uganda.
“He often forced children to kill their parents or siblings with machetes or blunt tools…he brainwashed and indoctrinated the children with his lies and manipulated them with his claim of spiritual powers,” stated the Invisible Children website, the organization the produced Kony 2012, a documentary on the outlining the horrors of Kony’s regime.
“Many would sleep at libraries, schools, and parks. Home and night were the places of abduction,” commented Father Don Dunson, who has been working with children in Uganda for over 10 years and has written the book Child, Victim, Soldier on the subject of child soldiers.
Children were not the only ones fighting for their lives.
“Many parents sent their children to boarding schools, when though they could not afford it because there was less of a chance of being abducted from the boarding schools. Some were forced to kill their parents at the time of abduction so they would not have anything to come back for. Some parents gave their children permission to kill them so the children could live,” continued Father Don.
The LRA left Uganda in 2006 after the Juba Peace talks, but have continued to stage attacks in Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic.
The idea of using children in war is very old, such as drummer boys in battlefields of the past. The word “infantry” can mean a group of foot soldiers or a group of young people. But in recent years, the use of children as soldiers has increased. The victims of this practice are not only the dead, but it is estimated that about 10 million children have been left psychologically traumatized in the past 3 decades due to the recruitment of child soldiers.
The trauma has had many long term effects on these children, sometimes changing the course of their lives.
“There were physical, emotional, and spiritual scars. Some suffer from extreme malnutrition. They fall into eating disorders because of food and security they end up eating too much or too little. Some lost limbs, some still have bullets in them, making it hard to get jobs. In some PTSD resulted in nightmares. One man can only sleep during the day because of his nightmares. He lives by the verse, ‘Joy cometh in the morning,’” explained Father Don.
“It was kill or be killed. Some face extreme guilt because they have been forced to kill those they love. It created an inability to trust adults. They feel the adult word betrayed them. Their parents weren’t able to protect them, so now they have a hard time trusting people,” continued Father Don.
After the war people tended to keep quiet about their experiences. The war was a horrible time in their lives and most did not want to relive it by discussing it.
“I have met people here, for example one lady from El Salvador who is here, she won’t talk about it. Her son was killed. Her neighbor and his, I think, five or seven children were killed. And she says if you think I had it worse, it’s nothing compared to my other son who is living,” related Ms. Barba.
“After the 911 attacks, the sense of war came back into my life after not speaking to anyone about what had happened in my country for the past 18 years - it finally caught up to me, as the past always does if not dealt with and so I began to write out the memories that were rushing to me,” commented Oscar Torres on his experiences.
The use of child soldiers has been recognized time and time again as an atrocity, yet history keeps repeating itself, and until it is learned from, it will never change. Oscar Torres summarized:
“Anything that subjects any human being to suffering is a good enough reason to fight against that. I see the war as something personal. Something I must help to prevent from happening. It has shown me that sometimes it takes one person raising his/her voice to make a difference. There's no such thing as unimportant people. We all matter.”

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