Where are they? – The disappeared children of El Salvador

Where are they?
Where are they? (© Asociación Pro-Búsqueda)

Throughout the 1980’s, the Central American nation of El Salvador was the scene of an intense, dirty civil war that left 75,000 people dead and forced over a million to flee the country. A peace agreement signed in 1992 included the establishment of a truth commission to investigate human rights abuses, but the commission’s report was widely criticised for being incomplete. One of the human rights violations which was left unmentioned was the forced disappearance of children. Unable to find proof that their children had been killed or abducted, some parents and relatives created the Association for the Search of Disappeared Children.

Producers: Eric Beauchemin & Ginger da Silva

Broadcast: September 29, 1998


You’re listening to A Good Life, on Radio Netherlands. Today, we have A Good Life special. We’ve said it a number of times on A Good Life: the biggest obstacle to development is war. And once war is over, apart from the political agreements that have to be implemented and the physical rebuilding that needs to be done, there is a lot of personal healing that has to happen before society can begin to function normally, and people can begin to build a new life.

Throughout the 1980’s, the Central American nation of El Salvador was the scene of an intense, dirty civil war. 75,000 people died and over a million were forced to flee the country. 12 years of fighting saw horrible atrocities, mainly committed by the US-backed Salvadorian army and right-wing death squads.

The peace agreement signed in 1992 included the establishment of a Truth Commission to investigate human rights abuses, but the Commission’s report was widely criticized for being incomplete. One of the human rights violations which it neglected to mention was the forced disappearance of children. If our children are our future, El Salvador needs to find its own.  Eric Beauchemin has been to El Salvador and he prepared this special edition of A Good Life .

In 1993, a year after the end of the Salvadorian war, people in Chalatenango, one of the departments hardest hit by the conflict, started talking about children who had disappeared without a trace during military operations. Their parents and other relatives were unable to find any proof that the children had been killed. Soon they began to suspect that these children might still be alive. Their doubts were shared by people in other departments which had also seen heavy fighting, and in 1995, they set up the Association for the Search of Disappeared Children. Ralf Sprinkels is a Dutchman working with the Association.

In general they were taken by the military, by the soldiers to the barracks and from there they  are being distributed to different orphanages in some cases. The Red Cross in some cases took care of these children, but in other occasions, the military officials take these children home and adopt them as their own. In some cases, the people that live near the military bases hear that there are children are available. They go out and look for them and see if they can adopt them. The children that were brought to the orphanages were usually adopted to other countries such as the United States, Holland, France, Italy, in a matter of three months to two years of being in the orphanages.

The Association has so far registered the forced disappearance of 520 children. Generally, the disappearances took place when troops entered a village as part of their all-out war, as they put it, to eliminate the plague of communism at the root. They would gather large groups of civilians, separate the children, and then systematically murder all the adults. But during the first years of the conflict, the Salvadorian military also killed children.

The best example of this is probably the El Mozote massacre in which children were closed into a small convent and murdered systematically, exterminated. But starting 1982 after the El Mozote massacre, the orientations from the officials started to change, probably also because it was very demanding mentally for the soldiers to kill children. It’s not something you can justify easily. If you justify that, you are morally superior to the communists but then end up killing children systematically, it’s a contradiction. I think that the strategy of killing children had a negative impact on the troops. Also it seems that the troops that did kill children were usually the troops that were drugged. Many of the lead battalions when they’d go out on an operation, take drugs and continued the operation for two or three days and exterminate everything that they found in their way. But the other troops that would come after the first group would not be drugged and would have a different attitude towards their victims, and would in many cases spare their victims.

Once the military operation was finished, the troops would take the children back to their barracks, and all contact with surviving relatives was broken. People invariably fled their villages, fearing new military attacks, and they’d take refuge elsewhere in El Salvador or in neighboring Honduras. It was virtually impossible for the parents or other relatives to track the children down. If they tried, they could be putting their own lives at risk.

One child that was captured in a safe house of the guerrilla in San Salvador, he was taken to an orphanage and when the father who was a guerrilla fighter, sent for the child, the woman that went to get the child from the orphanage was disappeared by the security forces. So they were basically keeping an eye on the child to see who would come to reclaim the child because that person would also be linked to the guerrilla forces. The situation of the conflict in El Salvador made it virtually impossible for families to reclaim these children, and in many occasions, they even thought that they had been killed in the military operations. It’s only when many years later that there is no evidence of the child’s body or anybody saying that the child had been killed, or anybody seeing the child’s body, that the family starts speculating that the child might have been taken by the armed forces instead of being killed.

The uncertainty about the children’s fate has been gnawing at the surviving relatives ever since the end of the war in 1992. Gianina Hasbun is a psychologist who’s been working with the Association for the Search of Disappeared Children for the past two years. She’s providing counseling and group therapy to the relatives.

The relatives that have not found their children, it’s very difficult because we have to work upon grief because they have so many relatives that have died during the war, but also they have great expectations about finding their children and we know that not all of them shall be found. And if they can be found, they expect to find the small child that they have lost. It’s also a loss because they will not find the child that they are looking for. They will find a young man, a young woman. Even if they are found, it could also be that the youths do not want to have any kind of relationship with them because maybe they don’t really understand what happened, or they feel that they were abandoned by their families.

For the adoptive families, learning the truth about the past and coming to terms with it is equally difficult…a mixture of joy and pain, as Kathleen Cassidy discovered last April. Ralf Sprinkels called her up on the East Coast of the United States to tell her that her 15-year-old adoptive son, Peter, had been wrenched from his family and forcibly disappeared in 1985. When they heard the news, both Kathleen and Peter were dumbfounded, as they told me on a sometimes crackly phone line.

(K) I was completely shocked because I had no information on Peter when I adopted him. When it was explained to me that it may have been purposeful that he was separated from his family, it was pretty upsetting. EB: And Peter, how did you react? (P) It was kind of weird because like I wasn’t really thinking about something like that happening right away. So to me, it was just off guard. I don’t know. Surprised. EB: Did you guys talk about it a lot? (P)Most of the time, yeah. (K) What he means is that we spent most of our time talking about it. We talked about it a lot. EB: What did Ralf tell you when he informed you about all of this? (K) He told me that the Ciprian family had been looking for Peter, and he gave me a lot of information. As soon as I finished the conversation, I had really no doubt in my mind that this wasn’t the right child or that they had made a mistake or any of that. He was really clear about the fact that the family didn’t have any desire to do anything about the adoption. It wasn’t that they wanted to bring Peter back to El Salvador, but they wanted to know him. They wanted to find out about him. They wanted to know what his life was. They wanted to meet him. EB: And so what did you do about that? (K) We decided to go down. We went down during Easter time, I guess probably only three weeks after we found out. EB: That was fairly quick, wasn’t it? Yeah. It was the sort of information that once you have, you have to do something about. That was my view. And once I had it, I needed to make it real. The idea that this should be this abstract idea out here, and then it’s family that wanted to meet him and all this. It was too hard to just have this information. I had to do something about it. And, of course, the fact that Peter pestered me night and day helped. EB: Peter, you’re the one who wanted to go back to El Salvador to discover your family. (P) Well, it really wasn’t the whole thing about me and the whole family right yet. It was basically about meeting a sister because I’m an only child here. So it was kind of a new concept for me to have a sister, and I really wanted to find her because she was half of me or whatever. So it was like interesting. EB: When you got down there, how did it go? (P) Well, for her, it was quite of weird because she was reminding all the memories of how I was shot, how my mother was killed or whatever. So for her, she could bring back the memories. She was like 6 years old when it happened. EB: So, you were only 2 then. Yeah. EB: Can you tell me what it was like when you arrived in the village. What happened? (P) Well, I first arrived at their house, and it was kind of weird because I didn’t know any of these people really, and they were really happy to see me. (K) 50 of the closest friends and relatives were at the house. (P) It was kind of like a shock to see all these people related to me. They were all so happy to see me. They were all watching me, every single move I made. So it was very interesting but also scary because I wasn’t used to being in that situation. (K) For me, Peter looked like a lot of these people. It was so clear to me that he came from their family. There wasn’t any question really. I also saw a lot of personality samenesses with his cousins. Peter is very outgoing. He looked like he belonged. EB: Did you spend a lot of time talking about what had happened in the past and what the situation was now? (P) Yes. I spend a lot of time finding out how I was shot and how I got there, what uncles had died, what family members were still left and stuff like that. Basically, my uncle who was looking for me the whole time because he was with my mom when the massacre took place. So he always kind of felt responsible, that he couldn’t stop me, and that I wouldn’t have got shot and my mom wouldn’t have died. So he did a lot of the searching for me. (K) Lilian, Peter’s sister, was the one who mostly conveyed to us how he had gotten separated. They were both with their mother, and there was a massacre. About 50 people or so were killed. (P) 80. (K) They were two of the children that were spared, and they were taken back to an army barracks after the massacre. Peter had been shot in the arm. And the soldiers went to take Peter, and she told us this very emotional story about she told them that she was old enough to take care of him and that she could take care of him. They basically took him from her, and that was the last time she ever saw him till we got down there again. EB: And what happened then? (P) They first took me to the army compound in Chalatanango. (K) We know that they took him to the Chalatananago hospital because we have records that he was admitted there, and he went from there to an orphanage. Somebody made that decision. (P) The head army guy made that decision. EB: You know that for a fact. (P) Yeah, that’s what I heard from the people down there. It’s basically what happened to a lot of the children. The head of the army would make those decisions, what orphanage they’d go to. (K) Well, you know, they had his name. They knew his name. They knew this massacre had just happened. The rest of the people were down the road in an army barracks. When I say “down the road”, I really mean that. It was only about 2 miles away. So, I don’t think there was any mistake here. EB: How long did you stay there before you were put up for adoption? (K) He went from the army barracks to the orphanage, and he was there for almost a year. This massacre happened in August. He was moved into the orphanage by the beginning of November. And I got the papers on him saying he was released for adoption by February of that year. EB: And you had no idea what had happened and that he had a sister. (K) No. I thought he was an orphan. I assumed he was an orphan of the war, that his parents had been killed, and they didn’t know who he was. EB: Peter, how did you react when you heard all of this? It must have been completely overwhelming, a completely new world, a past that you knew nothing about. How did you react? (P) It was just very strange. I felt that when I got down there, I would know how I feel like. Like down there, I didn’t have a really big reaction, just like I knew that my whole life. Maybe because I didn’t put a lot of thought into it and I didn’t really ask a lot of questions about myself to them. I didn’t really ask why this happened or whatever like that. I just went along with it, and it went fine. None of them were mean. They were all nice. My reaction was: wow, it’s great. I found them. EB: And Kathleen, how did you react? (K) I have to say I spent a lot of time crying. I think it was an extremely emotional experience. For me, one of the things that was so nice about it was before I went, I was extremely worried that they would hate me. And they would reject me. You know, here I am, an American. Our country pretty much supported the army in El Salvador, and we were pretty much responsible for the soldiers who did this to Peter’s mom and to his sister and to him. Even though I didn’t support that, I thought they would be very rejecting of me. That wasn’t true. They were very warm. They were very open. They were very thankful that I had taken good care of Peter. The agency had really helped them to think about this whole thing. They were very clear and communicated through the interpreters to me that they wanted just for us all to be a family, for us to keep in touch with the, to visit, to be part of the Ciprians. It’s not that they wanted him to come back and resume a life there. So, it felt pretty wonderful. There was a mass in the church. Father Cortina who is involved with the agency said a special celebratory mass for the Cirprians now having found their child who had disappeared, and it was probably one of the most emotional things I have ever experienced in my life.

Since it began its search, the Association has managed to unravel 104 of the 520 cases registered so far. The Association only found six cases where children had died during the military operation or shortly afterwards. 98 of the children are alive. Each time a child is found, says Gianina Hasbun, the Association’s members experience very mixed feelings.

At first we thought that when one of the children were found, it meant not happiness just for the family but for all the other persons that have their relatives disappeared, but we have also found out that although they feel this happiness, at times, the hope also decreases, because they say they’re finding so many others and they’re not finding my ones, so they feel guilty when they think maybe my child will not be found, so that makes them feel so guilty. So we say, “OK, this is normal. And sometimes, we’ll be very hopeful, and sometimes we’ll lose our hope, and that’s OK. That’s normal.”

From the very beginning, all the Association’s members decided that they would not demand that the children leave their adoptive parents to go live with their biological family. The babies and toddlers who disappeared during the civil war are now young men and women. They’ve grown up, in the past 15 years, either in El Salvador or in adoptive families abroad. The time and distance which separate them from their roots, says Gianina Hasbun, make reunions often both difficult and painful for the young adults and their biological relatives.

Usually the families think that when they find their child that everything will be over, but that’s not that way. So many of them say that when the reunification happens, they start to remember all that had happened before and how they lost their child. So there’s happiness, but there’s also a lot of sadness. We let them know the children that are now young men and young women have already made their own lives and they have other people whom they care about. It’s difficult but they get to understand that, and we don’t want the youths to feel like they have to chose between one family and another. There are many problems along the way. So, we started to work together: what can we do with this? Or what can we do to make them understand the real story? So they say, “we can visit the place where they disappeared, we can visit the former houses.” Things like that that help them and they start to remember also. After the reunification, there also begins a process when they start to visit one another, and confidence and the affection starts to grow. And they start to share important things, and that’s very important.

Since he discovered his origins last spring, 15-year-old Peter Cassidy has been trying to establish a relationship with his biological relatives, and particularly his 20-year-old sister, who he hopes will come to see him in the United States in December. The first visit he and his mother paid to El Salvador at Easter was such a powerful and enriching experience that Peter decided to go back, this time on his own.

I went this summer for about two weeks. And it was really fun. I learned a lot. I did some of the field work. I found some more background on me. I went to see where my mom was from. (K) He’s interested in possibly going down there next summer to work in a volunteer program in the village where his family lives. There’ll be a lot of going back and forth. EB: So you definitely want to keep in touch with El Salvador and with your family, Peter. (P) Yes. EB: How do you feel about that Kathleen? (K) I’m actually happy about it. Initially, I was worried about what it would mean, but at this point, it’s clear to me is that what it means is that his life is going to be enriched. Not that they want to take him away from me, but that he is going to have family there and family in the United States. One of the things we did when we went down is we brought pictures of our family from here so they could see that his grandparents were here and his cousins, etc. They have pictures of all of his family down there too, and now we have pictures of the Ciprians here. It’s still on certain days very hard to believe, but I think over time it’s going to be a very positive thing. EB: Has it changed your relationship, between the two of you? (K) What do you think Peter? (P) Not really. (K) I mean, I guess I sort of feel like we have a whole new thing that has become part of our experience together. I sort of have the feeling that Peter doesn’t feel I’m going to hold him back from doing things in his life because of this. Peter, do you feel that way? (P) No. (K) You don’t feel that way? Well, I feel that way. EB: What do you feel Peter? (P) Well, it’s kind of weird because now you got a place with two homes. So it’s like every time you want to go somewhere, you want to go traveling somewhere, when other people are visiting family, it’s like I can go down there and visit family. So it’s pretty cool. You’re not located in like just one little world, but in a whole different world. It’s like living two different lives. (K) I think it’s hard to think about your kid having two different lives. So that’s not so easy for me. I sort of feel that because I went down when he went down initially, I got to sort of experience what really it was like to have this family sort of welcome him back in and be so happy to have found him. I think that if I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be as accepting of it as I feel like I am. They were so joyful. It meant so much to them. I think the fact that we went together to the massacre site where Peter’s mom had been killed, that was the first time they had ever been back. I think that was a big healing process for everybody, even though it was really difficult. EB: So it’s a process basically of getting reacquainted after so many years. (P) Uh huh. (K) I think Lilian is just as happy to have a brother as Peter is to have a sister, which is really nice. (P) It’s also like when you have cousins or whatever, it’s nice to have them. But when you have a sister, it’s more like you have somebody who is basically made from the same genes, half of you. It’s just more like you have someone there. EB: So, in some way, you feel more complete now. (P)Yes. EB: This must be a bit difficult at your age. 15, it’s a difficult age in any case, but having something like this, it must be quite difficult. (P) It’s really weird. You start thinking about what my life was like then and now, and what it would be like if I was still there. So in some part it is difficult but in some part I just get really used to it, like a different lifestyle. EB: Kathleen, do you feel that as a result of what’s happened that your son has matured far earlier than he would normally have? (K) On some days I certainly do. I think he’s got a view of the world that’s very different than he had this time last year and of himself in many ways. Yes, I think he’s much more mature than he was last year. That’s good. And you know, I’m happy for him that he knows this much about his past because I think that’s a big issue for people that are adopted.

The Association for the Search of Disappeared Children has succeeded in tracking down 30 other teenagers and young adults like Peter who were adopted by families abroad. The Association believes that many more disappeared children were adopted abroad, but the leads provided by the biological families often run dry, says Ralf Sprinkels.

Some of the children were adopted not within the legal system but with fake documentation. Child trafficking and sometimes using a lawyer and using the court of minors, but the documentation to send this particular child to a different country is not the documentation of this child but of a different person, or invented person. So in these cases it’s much more difficult. The army, when they started to get many children from these military operations, some of them found that this was a way to make money, and they started to traffic with these children. We have one specific case documented in which an official of the Azlacat battalion kidnapped a child in Guazapa in a military operation and passed the child on to his brother who was a lawyer. His brother forged the paper work and adopted the child. So the problem with these cases is that to trace the identities of these children is extremely difficult. Since it has been illegal, it has been very hush, hush. We’re beginning to gather proof of the military and child trafficking in El Salvador. We hope that eventually these cases will go court and justice will be done.

The Association for the Search of Disappeared Children has had to battle long and hard to get access to the records of child protection services, orphanages and adoption agencies. Most government bodies and the military remain extremely reluctant to accept that forced disappearances of children actually took place during El Salvador’s civil war. The Association’s main supporter in the government, says Ralf Sprinkels, has been the human rights ombudswoman or procuraduría, an office which was created as a result of the 1992 peace accords.

The ombudswoman, the procuraduría, accepted a resolution last March in which they explained the problem of disappeared children. They put the responsibility of these disappearances with the armed forces of El Salvador. This is the first time that the Salvadorian government or an institution from the Salvadorian government recognizes that forced disappearances took place in El Salvador. The level of denial from the institutions – government of El Salvador – about what happened during the civil war, about systematic human rights violations, has been tremendous, all throughout the war and even after the war. The report from the Truth Commission was rejected by the armed forces. The Assembly decreed a general amnesty law shortly after the document was published, and there has not been official recognition of systematic human rights violations during the war. So to have the procuraduría, say that children were disappeared by the army in a certain systematic way is an important gain for our organization. We also work with the legislative assembly. We want them to approve a law to protect the right of identity of the children that were disappeared because of the war, but we find that they are more interested in the elections and in other issues than in talking about things that happened during the war. There is a certain taboo about what happened during the war in El Salvador. It’s not an issue that the politicians like to talk about, either left or right. It’s something that they prefer to avoid. So we suffer from that boycott. We try to break the silence about forced disappearances, specifically about the issue of disappeared children, and we have had some success but not as much as we would like to have.

he silence about forced disappearances not only permeates El Salvador’s establishment. Much the same is happening in neighboring Guatemala, where a 36-year-old civil war finally came to an end 2 years ago. There too, cases of disappeared children are beginning to be reported, and there too the authorities, particularly the military, have been unwilling to assist the relatives and open their archives. The Association for the Search of Disappeared Children believes international pressure would help bring about a change in the government and military’s attitude. Kathleen and Peter Cassidy agree. That’s why they were ready to tell me their own story.

(K) This is real human rights work. I think that they have really brought things to light that are really going to help to continue the emergence of El Salvador as a country in the world, facing up to its past. (P) Some people tell me when I was down there that they wouldn’t take girls as much as they take boys because boys could fight when they are older and they didn’t want that to happen. They wanted to make the other side weak by any means possible. So it’s like basically using kids as you might say a piece in a chess game. It’s kind of a weird concept thinking of that but that’s just the way it was. (K) It’s the worst kind of terrorist act you can imagine: taking people’s children.

Kathleen and Peter Cassady, on the line from New Jersey. This Good Life Special on the Disappeared Children of El Salvador was prepared and presented by Eric Beauchemin.  Technical operations were by Frank Meijer.  I’m Ginger da Silva, and I’ll be back with another edition of A Good Life in seven days time. Til then, stay well.