Bearing the scars of strife: War takes personal toll on Salvadorean children

Bearing the scars of strife: War has taken such a great personal
toll on these Salvadorean children that they can’t imagine it
ending or what it would be like to live in peace

(The Globe & Mail Page A1)

Monday, June 03, 1991

Nejapa, El Salvador — BY JEAN KAVANAGH Special to The Globe and Mail
— Imagining life without soldiers in the streets, without frequent battles and crossfire, and without constant memories and fear of death is not easy for children who have experienced the worst of civil war.

“There’s no war in your country?” a 15-year-old orphan of El Salvador’s conflict responded incredulously when asked if he could envisage his tiny country without bombs and battles, a reality for the last 10 years of his young life.

“That would be great, really great,” Carlos Serrano murmured, turning to his friends for support and agreement.

In the shadows of the war-ravaged San Salvador volcano, 25 kilometres north of the capital, the Fe y Esperanza (Faith and Hope) orphanage is home to 100 of the thousands of parentless children here. The majority of its residents have witnessed the death of one or both parents, and have survived both bombings and months or years fleeing from their homes in mountainous conflict zones.

Many adults, including politicians across the spectrum and military leaders of both the U.S.-backed armed forces and the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), say a prompt end to the conflict is possible through current negotiations. In the eyes of the children that is almost incomprehensible.

“I sometimes think we could have this war for many more years,” said Rudi Palma, a 17-year-old leader at Fe y Esperanza, considering the possible results of negotiations under way in Venezuela between the far- right government and the leftist FMLN.

“A ceasefire is possible, I guess, but the war will continue while they are meeting, until they reach a concrete agreement – if that’s possible.”

Ms. Palma’s doubt is understandable. She is a five-year resident of the stark, rural orphanage that is run by the Lutheran Church. Before arriving here, she had spent a year in a refugee centre and a year hiding in the mountains.

Like the majority of the orphanage’s children, who range in age from 2 to 18, Ms. Palma lost her parents during a 1984 army operation when about 300 residents around rural Las Minas, Chalatenango, were pulled from their homes and killed in a nearby field. She and her two younger brothers were visiting their
grandparents and escaped the carnage.

“We knew our parents were in the house and when people said what had happened we went to find them. On the way there was still fighting, bullets flew past us, bombs were still falling. When we arrived there was no one there, the house was destroyed and we wondered where our parents were.

“We finally realized two hours later they had died because an uncle told us they took them away. I never saw my father again, not even where he was buried. But two days later they (neighbours) brought my mother’s body and I saw her.”

The stoic recounting of such horrors is another reality. Sitting under a mango tree in the modestly constructed orphanage, a small group shares stories of parental loss as children in peaceful countries might talk of family festivities and vacations.

The war has taken such a great personal toll on these children that they cannot imagine it ending or what it would be like to live in peace, says Rev. Brian Rude, a Lutheran minister from Calgary who serves as pastor here.

“It’s the only reality they know; they don’t have people from other countries, kids from other countries to share life experiences with,” said Mr. Rude, who returned to El Salvador in February, having been arrested by the military and expelled during the FMLN offensive in November, 1989 – the rebels’ largest attack.

“They assume that everybody, all children, grow up in a war setting and have to face this kind of thing, and for a lot of them it is all they remember, all they know in life,” Mr. Rude said. “It’s their reality and what they think people should have to expect to live through.”

Even after a year of United Nations-mediated negotiations, which resulted in a three-point accord covering constitutional reform for the electoral process and some aspects of the armed forces, the children of Fe y Esperanza do not believe they will experience peace soon.

“They’re having these meetings but not much is changing here,” said young Carlos Serrano. “We still can’t go where we want, go out around here because they (army soldiers) might try to recruit us.”

Forced recruitment of boys aged 14 and over, especially among the rural poor who form the majority of El Salvador’s population of more than five million, is one major concern for Carlos and his friends. Among others are the frequent charges by local soldiers that they are FMLN rebels.

“Two weeks ago, six of us were coming back here and they made us get off the bus and said we were guerrillas. The soldiers still pass by here and watch us. That hasn’t changed since they started the negotiations.”