In El Salvador: A disappeared son returns
What Michael Kennedy remembers from his childhood in El Salvador comes to him in flashes: Picking coffee with his father. Fleeing into the mountains with his family. Hiding with his mother and sisters in a shelter dug into the side of a mountain during a raid, while his father, a guerrilla, was off fighting.Skip to next paragraph
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He remembers seeing his mother shot. It was then that Michael, 6 at the time and named Jose, was carried off by Army soldiers.
The American family who adopted him soon after was told he was an orphan. That's what Michael thought, too.
"I would say I didn't want to go back to El Salvador. There's just too much killing and too much sadness," he recalls.
But last week Michael, now 26, did go back - for a reunion with his biological father, who has spent years working with a local private organization to find his children.
The father's search was part of a quest paralleled in several Latin American countries where military juntas kidnapped children of dissidents and sent them into adoption.
In a landmark move, El Salvador's government is for the first time making an official effort to right old wrongs that tore families apart. The attorney general's office recently formed a committee that will help find "disappeared" children.
"The state wants to make amends for the damage it caused to those children and Salvadoran families in general," says Candy de Acevedo, who drew up the committee's work plan, which will be released later this month.
"This is not about looking for penal justice," says Azucena Mejias, coordinator of Pro-Busqueda, the private Salvadoran organization that has until now shouldered all the work of conducting searches and facilitating reunions. "Knowing the truth and finding the child who was forcefully separated from his family is also a way of doing justice - moral and ethical justice."
In El Salvador, hundreds of families are still splintered eight years after the country's civil war ended. Many of the "disappeared" children of El Salvador were adopted by families abroad, mostly the US, while others were adopted by members of the military in El Salvador. Although the practice was widespread, Pro-Busqueda cannot prove that it was part of a baby-trafficking scheme.
So far Pro-Busqueda has identified 618 children who disappeared during the 12-year civil war, and has resolved more than 200 cases.
Michael says that, growing up in Pennsylvania, he had often cried for his baby sister, whom he thought had been killed along with his mother. But Pro-Busqueda discovered that his sister, now 20, had also been adopted - within El Salvador - by a high-ranking military officer and his former wife.
Just days after his meeting with his father, Michael met with his sister, who requested that her name not be published. The next day she accompanied Michael on her first visit to see their father in his home town of Tejutla, in the northern province of Chalatenango.