"Innocent Voices" Movie Tells Child Soldier's Tale

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
January 10, 2005
After the civil war broke out in El Salvador in the early 1980s, Oscar
Torres had to lie on his stomach to do his homework to avoid getting
struck by stray bullets.

But there was one thing that the 11-year-old Torres feared even more than getting caught in the crossfire: being conscripted into the army.

During the war the government forces routinely rounded up all 12-year-old boys for service. Sometimes younger children were signed up as well.

Torres escaped numerous roundups in his shantytown in Cuscatazingo, El Salvador. Finally, after he turned 12, he joined the guerilla movement known as the FMLN (Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional), which was fighting the government.

It was hardly a voluntary decision.

"Ask any 12-year-old if he wants to join a war and he will say no," Torres, now 33, said recently. "The problem is that many children don't have a choice."

Torres's harrowing story is retold in a graphic new film, Innocent Voices, which is Mexico's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2004 Academy Awards. Torres co-wrote the screenplay with the film's director, Luis Mandoki.

The movie, which has yet to be scheduled for U.S. release, spotlights the plight of child soldiers in conflicts around the world.

Though the civil war in El Salvador ended in 1992, the problem of child soldiers remains serious and widespread.

According to a recent report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers—which includes several leading non-governmental organizations—children (under 18 years) are currently participating as soldiers in nearly every major armed conflict. Dozens of nonstate armies and about ten governments are using child soldiers in more than 20 conflicts around the globe.

Grave Violations

In some countries, such as Afghanistan, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, the situation has improved as conflicts have ended, and children are being demobilized. But in other countries, such as Sudan and the Ivory Coast, additional children have been drawn in as fighters as conflicts have erupted or escalated.

Child soldiers are particularly common in Africa. The Great Lakes region (Rwanda, Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo) and Uganda are the most affected areas.

According to the findings of the 2004 Child Soldiers Global Report, out of over a hundred thousand children estimated to have been recruited and used as soldiers in Africa between 2001 and 2004, more than half of them are found in the Great Lakes region. There were an estimated 30,000 child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone by the end of 2003.

"Due to ongoing conflict in the region for almost a decade, children continue to become victims of recruitment, abductions, sexual abuse, and other grave violations of their rights," said Henri Nzeyimana, the Great Lakes coordinator of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. "Governments and armed groups in the Great Lakes are betraying both children and their own societies and endangering long-term peace and stability in the region," he added.

In northern Uganda—where a rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army has waged a 17-year-old war against the Ugandan government—abductions and recruitment of child soldiers escalated dramatically between 2002 and 2004. To date, some 20,000 children have been kidnapped by the LRA to serve as soldiers or sex slaves.

Legal Framework

But the practice persists outside Africa too.

Experts estimate that 20 percent or more of Myanmar's 350,000 soldiers are children under the age of 18. Army recruiters in the Asian country (also called Burma) frequently apprehend boys at bus stations and markets, threatening them with jail if they refuse to join the army.

Most boys are sent to camps where they go through weapons training. Many boys have been beaten to death after trying to run away, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Boys as young as 12 have been forced to commit human rights abuses against civilians in Myanmar, including rounding up villagers for forced labor and carrying out executions.

Experts say that considerable progress has been made toward the establishment of a legal framework for the protection of children in armed conflicts. The countries in central Africa, for example, have signed and ratified the international standards relating to child soldiers. Also, the United Nations has strongly condemned countries whose armies recruit child soldiers.

But real change has been elusive.

"The international community is becoming more aware of the problem, but we still see too little action," said Jo Becker, the Advocacy Director of the Children's Rights Division at the Human Rights Watch in New York. "In most countries commanders recruit children with impunity. Rarely are they brought to justice for these crimes."

One exception, Becker says, is Sierra Leone. There, each of the 11 defendants indicted by a special war crimes court has been charged with recruiting or using children under the age of 15—the court views recruiting minors as a war crime.

"We hope that as some of these defendants are convicted, it will send a strong message to others that they may face serious consequences for their abuse of children," Becker said.

Living Nightmare

Torres, meanwhile, hopes Innocent Voices will bring renewed attention to the plight of child soldiers.

"This isn't just a story about me but about all the other kids that are living this nightmare now," he said after a recent Hollywood screening.

Torres eventually escaped to the United States where, six years later, he was reunited with his family. He now works as an actor and writer.

But his past still haunts him.

During the shooting of the movie, the director, Luis Mandoki, said that Torres would sometimes just disappear.

"Later I would find him crouching under a tree, crying," Mandoki said after the screening.

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