The civil war in El Salvador-like many wars throughout the world-is fought largely by teenagers. Their lives are violent-and often tragically short.
WITH HER DIMPLED cheeks and flirtatious smile, Yesenia looks like any 16year-old Salvadoran girl.
But instead of primping for a high school prom, this teenager is preparing for war. Yesenia is a member of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a Marxist-inspired group that has battled the United States-backed Salvadoran Army for nine years.
Fiddling with her M-16 rifle with an absent-minded familiarity, Yesenia explains how her childhood-like those of hundreds of thousands of others in Central America-has been warped by the war.
"A lot of us have been with the [revolutionary] struggle since we were born.," she says. Her family has been on the run since 1976, when Army soldiers killed her father at a leftist protest march, when she was just 3 years old. "Many of our parents have died or left the struggle" because they have grown old, she says. "The children are left fighting."
A LIFE OF POVERTY AND VIOLENCE
Conditioned by poverty, army violence, and guerrilla promises of a just society, Yesenia joined her brothers in the FMLN at age 11. After several months as a messenger, she learned how to operate a radio-and how to shoot a machine gun.
The civil war in El Salvador-like many wars throughout the world-is fought largely by poor teenagers. Nearly all of this country's estimated 72,000 soldiers (65,000 in the Army, 7,000 in the FMLN) are under 20.
Of the 12 rebels interviewed around the guerrilla-held village of Santa Marta, only one was over 21-and that was Comandante "Antolin," the FMLN's political-military chief for the northern department (province) of Cabanas.
"They call me 'old man,' " laughs the youthful commander, nodding toward a group of six young female fighters.
Antolin is actually just 37 years old, but he began working with clandestine revolutionary organizations in 1968, before any of the girls were born. Even in 1979, when he helped kidnap prominent bankers and businessmen to buy weapons, some of his troops-who now use those same weapons-were still learning how to walk.
Salvadoran Army leaders say the high percentage of young FMLN fighters shows that the rebels are suffering more casualties than ever before. The military claimed to have killed more than 2,300 guerrillas during last year's insurrection.
"The number of experienced combatants in the FMLN is minimal," says Army Chief of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce, who claims the guerrillas forcibly recruit young boys. "Some of the subversives we've found are 10-year-old kids . . . . [The FMLN] is depending on children who don't have the same strength or valor of an adult."
The FMLN, which proudly displays its young fighters but denies charges of forced recruitment, has no monopoly on El Salvador's children. While the Constitution does not allow the Army to recruit males under 18 years old, military ranks are rife with juveniles-especially in the countryside.
"Peasant soldiers often look younger than they are," says Colonel Ponce. "Nevertheless, some younger people slip in. You can't avoid that."
Despite their youth, the guerrillas in Santa Marta are certainly not short on experience. Nearly all say they have spent their lives close to the FMLN's struggle and more than five years fighting in the mountains. One 13year-old, named Oscar, has been toting a rifle for two years.
"I started by keeping secrets and hiding documents," says Susana, a 21-year-old with seven years of combat experience. Now she is an emergency nurse who evacuates and cares for those injured in battle.
As the war that has taken 70,000 lives relentlessly marches toward its second decade, these children are growing up. Dating, dancing, and raising a family become revolutionary experiences.
Susana, for instance, took "maternity leave" in 1987 to bear a child. Seven months later, she left the baby in a family that collaborates with the guerrillas and returned to the war front.
It's a transient, often tragic life. But the poor peasant children caught in the crossfire of the war keep putting on the uniforms of one side or the other. Not only is the war altering their lives, but it is robbing the country of its next generation.
Maria Ines Alvarenga, a villager here, slips into her adobe hut and returns with a faded photograph. It is a picture of her sister, a former guerrilla who was yanked out of her home, eight months pregnant, tortured, and left dead as a gruesome example to the village.
The warning only pushed Mrs. Alvarenga's family further into the guerrillas' arms. Two sons (ages 9 and 13) quickly joined the FMLN. After both died in combat, her 14-year-old daughter decided to join the "muchachos" (boys) in the mountains.
Now her oldest remaining child, a 12-year-old boy, wants to go off to war. "I can't let him go," says Alvarenga. "Who'd be left to work the fields? He's the only man in the family. " -Brook Larmer
Should the U.S. Cut Aid to El Salvador?
The U.S. government has provided more than $3.2 billion in aid to El Salvador over the past eight years. More than $1 billion of the aid has been in military equipment, and the U.S. helps train the Salvadoran Army.
This enormous outpouring of aid is part of the broad U.S. policy to support democratic governments in Central America. Indeed, without the support of the U.S., the Salvadoran government would have little chance in its war against the leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN).
But over the years, El Salvador's military has come under fire for its human-rights record. The army has been linked to right-wing "death squads." The death squads killed more than 30,000 Salvadorans over the past decade-and tortured thousands more.
Many congressional leaders believe the U.S. should cut off aid to El Salvador until its government can significantly improve the country's human-rights record. This debate gained new urgency last January, when Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani implicated members of the Salvadoran Army in the murders of six Jesuit priests. Indeed, the accused soldiers are part of a crack U.S.-trained army unit.
What do you think? Should the U.S. stop the flow of aid to the Salvadoran government?
YES: U.S. aid dollars are intended to promote democracy and human rights in El Salvador. In fact, U.S. dollars are funding an army filled with cold-blooded murderers. The U.S. has threatened to cut off aid before. But the killings continue. Only a complete cutoff will force El Salvador's government to bring about a final end to its army's "death squad" activities.
NO: Cutting off funds will cripple the democratic process in El Salvador and virtually insure a victory for the leftist FMLN. Also, El Salvador's economic dependence on the U.S. gives our government the opportunity to monitor human-rights abuses and pressure the government to clamp down on those responsible. If we cut off aid, we lose our only bargaining chip.