for National Geographic News
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 Soldierswhich includes several leading non-governmental organizationschildren (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.
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.
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