Experiences and psychocial impact of the El Salvador civil war on child soldiers

We reproduce in our tenth edition, a paper previously published in Biomédica, by Maria Santacruz and Rubi Arana (2002) which we have translated from the original Spanish in order to share its important findings more widely.

Santacruz and Arana present the psychosocial outcome of 293 ex-child combatants from the Salvadorian civil war, some ten years after the peace accords were signed. These now young adults were largely members of the Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberación Nacional (FMLN). The majority were recruited by the age of ten years, with an average age of 15 years when the peace accord was signed in 1992. Poorly educated prior to the war (25% had received no education at all), they struggle to make a decent living and represent a largely forgotten group living in poverty in post war El Salvadorian society.

In their analyses, the authors examine the influences which led these then children to ‘volunteer’ to fight; the absence of formal post conflict reintegration programs; the current poverty and social marginalization of these young adults, and the emotional changes they experienced as a result of their war time experiences. The young people themselves rated the changes they perceived in their emotional state, revealing that two out of three were currently troubled by memories of their war time experiences, while many reported anxiety, tiredness and/or depression as well as anger, sadness and dissatisfaction. A number of factors influenced their emotional wellbeing. These included the depth of their negative wartime experiences; the breakdown of important social networks and the occurrence of permanent injury or disability. Post war factors were also important. For example, community acceptance or rejection post conflict, and the availability of family support, are seen to exert an important influence upon individual outcome and the success or otherwise of the reintegration process. Disillusionment, either with individuals or the reintegration process, also impacts upon emotional wellbeing. The authors suggest that a combination of childhood participation in war and adult membership of a historically underprivileged majority does not bode well for a healthy emotional outcome.

Overall, these results support the importance of looking beyond the individual to their social relationships, social structure and social context if we are to gain an understanding both of the genesis of psychosocial trauma and the psychosocial impact of childhood participation in combat.

The authors argue cogently for El Salvadorian society to recognize its responsibility for these forgotten youngsters. It is not possible, they suggest to “speak of reconciliation and peace within El Salvadorian society while there remain some social groups who were profoundly affected by the armed conflict but have yet to receive the assistance they need” (p17).

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