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.

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.

After a teary reunion with his long-lost daughter last Friday, Tomas Oliva led his son and daughter, their relatives, and members of their adoptive families on a pilgrimage into the painful past. The destination was the mountain cave where Mr. Oliva had last seen his children. It was Oliva's first time back.

The group looked at what remained of the opening into the earthen cave where Oliva had left his family. Oliva showed them the gully where Michael's mother was shot and where, five days later, Oliva found her, buried her, and searched for the remains of his children.

"I looked for them, but never found them. I didn't find them dead or any signs of their death, so I thought I might find them alive. I just never knew where they might be," says Oliva. "It always made me upset to talk about this, but today I am happy because now I know we are all OK."

It was also a moving day for Michael's adoptive father, who had long heard the painful stories of what went on in this now-peaceful pine forest.

"Michael's life has been hard at times, with too many memories ....," says Robert Kennedy. "[This] may close the circle for Michael, and he'll have a fuller life, and that's the dream of any adoptive parent."

Success stories like these have made El Salvador a model for other countries in Latin America where cases of disappeared children still linger.

In Argentina some 200 children disappeared during the years of the 1976-to- 1983 military junta's "dirty war" on dissidents. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have located at least 58 of these children.

Just last year, the private Mental Health League of Guatemala conducted an initial study documenting 95 cases of disappearances of children during the nation's 36-year civil war. They think the numbers in Guatemala could far surpass those of Argentina and El Salvador. In November, the league set up a task force with Guatemala's office of the private charity Covenant House Latin America, and they hope to hold the first child-parent reunion this year.

According to Karla Varela, the children's rights official for the El Salvador office of the United Nation's Children's Fund, UNICEF, Nicaragua also had child disappearances but on a smaller scale.

"El Salvador is the leader in this kind of work, and Pro-Busqueda can share its experience and methodology with Guatemala and Nicaragua," Ms. Varela says.

Tracking down disappeared children has long been a controversial issue in El Salvador. Even today, many think Pro-Busqueda's work is an effort to discredit the government or the armed forces and that it is politically driven.

But things may be starting to change. Varela commends the Salvadoran government's recent move to assume what she terms its "legal responsibility" to help locate the missing children.

Meanwhile, Pro-Busqueda has found Michael's two other sisters - one in the US and the other in Europe, and he hopes to meet with them. Reconnecting with his father and one sister has already changed his life, he says: "This has given me closure to my sadness."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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