On Sunday night, Elvis and I watched the movie Innocent Voices. The movie tells the story, based in truth, of a young boy, Chava, who is afraid to turn 12. You see, in El Salvador during their civil war (1980 -1992), as soon as a boy turned 12, the military would come to the schools and recruit the boys to fight the guerillas. It was a really good movie, despite some inaccuracies (for example the actors used a Mexican accent, not a Salvadorian accent – this part was good for me because I can’t understand the Salvadorian accent). The movie has some powerful scenes, including one in which Chava meets up with a friend of his from school who was recruited by the military. You can see how much the military changed him.
Also, towards the end, Chava and his friends escape to join the guerillas (Chava’s uncle had joined the guerilla forces long before). A few military men follow the boys to the guerilla camp and kill all of the adults. They take the four young boys down by the river, where there are dozens of bodies strewn about, and make them kneel. The first two boys are executed before other guerilla forces arrive. Chava manages to escape, but before he does, he picks up a gun. He has it aimed at one of the military members who, just seconds before, was about to kill him. Then Chava realizes that the “man” is a kid – just like him. He puts down the gun and escapes to safety.
Watching the movie began a conversation between Elvis and me about the civil war in Guatemala. The war in Guatemala was much longer (1960-1996) and occurred during Elvis’s history. This war was also between government forces and the guerillas. The United States had staged a coup d’ etat in 1954 to oust the Communist – leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz, a former military colonel because they didn’t think his politics meshed well with those of the US. In response to the increasingly autocratic rule of Gen. Ydigoras Fuentes, who took power in 1958 following the murder of Colonel Castillo Armas, a group of junior military officers revolted in 1960. When they failed, several went into hiding and established close ties with Cuba. This group became the nucleus of the forces that were in armed insurrection against the government for the next 36 years.
The war amounted to an ethnic cleansing, and tens of thousands of indigenous people were murdered, their homes and villages burnt, and families who did survive were separated. Most of these crimes were committed by the Guatemalan military. (You can read more about the Guatemalan civil war here: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/war/guatemala.htm.)
I had previously been told that the effects of the civil war didn’t reach the department (similar to a county) of El Quiché, where Elvis was raised. I mentioned this to Elvis, and he looked at me as though I didn’t know anything. And I didn’t.
Elvis told me that he can remember his father running to hide from the military when they came to Canillá to recruit new members. (Who is going to join the military when they are being killed by the guerilla?) Elvis wasn’t even allowed to play outdoors most time – if the military saw a boy of decent size in the streets, they would kidnap them and make them join the army. He told me that once he was coming down from the mountain with some friends, just about to enter the town. The military was in the streets, yelling at everyone to get down. A young girl who had just left school didn’t listen to them, and they shot her at point blank range, killing her. Elvis was pretty far away and was pretty young, but he still remembers all of the details.
I can’t even imagine living through something like this. Living with fear and without hope for so many years. Elvis and his family were lucky – no one Elvis knew personally was killed during the war, but the effects of the war still devastate Guatemala (and El Salvador). Everything was destroyed; many infrastructure projects that could have been completed during those 36 years were not – such as paved roads in the countryside or perhaps water purification plants.
“Thanks to God, it’s over,” said Elvis. Yes, that’s true for Guatemala. Yet I wonder what is happening and what the future will be like in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, and all of the other places around the world where there is a war. And what can we do to prevent this from happening again?