The psychological and social rehabilitation and recovery of former child soldiers remains inadequate, and their personal struggles continue years after the armed conflicts end.
“The night the soldiers came to our village, they rounded up just us kids and told us we had to go with them, that our country needs us. The girls were separated from the boys and sent to ‘safe places’ to care for the dead and the wounded. We were taken to a military base and given an M16, which became our pillow and nightly companion for the months and years to come.”
Tore Martinez Figueroa, now 31, told me about the day he found himself enrolled in the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES). “I was almost 14, studying in the city, and surfing most afternoons. We were very poor, and my father was often away working. I grew up mostly with my friends and ‘doña Ela,’ a lady who looked after me.”
The Child Soldier as defined by the Cape Town Principles (established at a 1997 symposium by the NGO Working Group on the Convention on the Rights of the Child and UNICEF):
“A child soldier is any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms.”
Photo: Gary Mark Smith. This photo was taken during a firefight in Chalatenango, El Salvador in 1982. The series of photos, “The Streets of the Cold War/ El Salvador,” is online at streetphoto.com.
Salvadoran law allows for compulsory military service at 18, but emergency directives during the war allowed voluntary enrollment from the age of 16. Civil war broke out in 1980 and lasted twelve years. Of 6 million people, 80,000 were killed and one million fled the country.
Now almost two decades later, Tore, like most of his compatriots, is trying to rebuild his life while still haunted by a not so distant past.
“Between hills and highways, mountains and towns, we kept running, looking for the guerrilla. As we ran, so did much blood from both sides. It was normal to see a kid get shot or die of hunger. Cutting heads was like cutting mangoes.”