Innocent Voices: Children Amidst Armed Conflict

Voces InocentesMy girlfriend Sheila is a children’s rights worker dealing with children victims of the armed conflict. During her birthday last December 1, I joined her in one of her group’s activities, a Peace Camp in Iloilo City gathering half a hundred children from all over Panay Island who are victims of human rights violations by Philippine state forces.

Apart from conducting psycho-social therapy, play sessions, focus group discussions and sharing on the situation in their communities, and lectures on children’s rights, the Peace Camp also showed the film Voces Inocentes to the children participants as part of the program.

Showing Voces Inocentes is perfect for the occasion given the film’s critique of the forced conscription of children into the US-trained El Salvadorian Army at the height of the country’s brutal Civil War between the US-sponsored El Salvador puppet government and the revolutionary Farabundo Marti Liberacion National in the 1980s.

Every night the film’s protagonists, Chava and his friends, are caught in the crossfire between revolutionaries and fascist troops who are fighting for control of their village. They fear the day they reach the age of 12, when the Army rounds them up from their homes and schools to train them into child soldiers serving as cannon fodder against the FMLN.

In the film, the role of the United States in the “dirty war” against the El Salvadorian people is emphasized by the constant presence of US military advisers strutting alongside El Salvadorian army units.

Rather than surrender to hopelessness, Chava and his friends plot to join his uncle who is with the revolutionaries. But they are caught by the army and shot one by one in the head. Only Chava is fortunate enough to escape when FMLN fighters engaged the army unit that captured them.

As the film progressed, sympathy for the film’s protagonists can be seen in the faces of the children participants of the Peace Camp. Some were teary eyed during dramatic scenes, especially in the part when the children were executed at close range by the fascist troops.

Despite the effort by some vested interests to position Voces Inocentes as a film condemning all wars (for placing innocent civilians in between two contending forces), this falls short for the film clearly shows the overwhelming reactionary violence of the El Salvadorian state. It presents armed struggle as one of the legitimate responses of an oppressed people.

In the film, it is the FMLN guerrillas who warn the children in refugee camps to hide before the army comes in to gather child soldiers for their repressive war. It is also the revolutionaries who save Chava just before he was about to be cold-bloodedly shot in the head by the military.

Overall, the film narrates the struggles of the El Salvadorian people as they confront an oppressive regime bent on committing human rights violations against children, women, and other civilians in order to promote and protect the political and economic interests of the ruling classes.

 Artwork created by a child victim of aerial bombardment during a workshop initiated by the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC)-Ilocos. (Photo by Joan Garcia / bulatlat.com)

Artwork created by a child victim of aerial bombardment during a workshop initiated by the Children’s Rehabilitation Center (CRC)-Ilocos. (Photo by Joan Garcia / bulatlat.com)

The situation in the Philippines is not very far from the conditions in El Salvador as described in Voces Inocentes. In fact the worst violence of the Armed Forces of the Philippines are directed against unarmed civilians rather than revolutionary armed fighters of the Communist Party-led New People’s Army.

Under the US-imposed counterinsurgency design Oplan Bayanihan, the Philippine military commit various human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, illegal detention, and torture to suppress the people’s struggle for national liberation and genuine democracy.

Even children are not spared from the repressive machinations of state forces, as in the case of Rodielyn Aguirre, 6 years old, who was killed by an M203 grenade blast just outside her grandfather Julian Aguirre’s house in Tacayan, Tapaz, Capiz last March 11, 2012. Rodielyn’s 4 year old younger sister, Mariel, sustained injuries on her face, arms, and stomach.

Rodielyn’s family and the residents of Tacayan believe that the grenade came from the military detachment situated near their house. Instead of helping the victims, the AFP launched a vilification campaign by at once accusing Rodielyn and Mariel as child soldiers of the NPA, their grandfather Julian as a bomb maker, and the entire community as an NPA camp.

James, one of the participants of the Peace Camp, was only 12 years old when soldiers of the 47th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army barged into his family’s home in Tacayan and interrogated him. This happened in 2008, after an armed encounter between the army and the NPA near their house. The soldiers pointed an M16 rifle at him while accusing his family of supporting the revolutionaries. James and his two younger siblings were the only ones at home as his parents were working in the fields.

The administration of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III cynically promotes Oplan Bayanihan as a “peace and development” effort when it in fact involves the same triad operations of conducting civil-military operations for psywar, more intensified intelligence gathering, and more brutal combat operations as in previous counterinsurgency plans.

Far from being mere innocent voices caught in between two sides of armed conflict, children, who are sons and daughters of workers, peasants, and other marginalized classes, are victims of an unjust social system that condemn them to a life of oppression and extreme poverty while enriching the elite one percent.

Children have a stake in building a brighter future. They have a part to play in the struggle. They must be aroused, organized, and mobilized for meaningful social transformation.

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