Remembering the lost children of El Salvador's war

The Salvadoran government recently apologized for its role in the forced disappearance of children during its 12-year war. Some say targeting children was a tactic to invoke terror on families.

After more than 25 years of imagining how her mother and five younger brothers were killed by the Army during El Salvador’s brutal civil war, María Angelica Escobar got used to the nightmares.

But just over a year ago, the remains of Ms. Escobar’s mother and brothers were discovered in a mass grave in the community of San Cristóbal, in the hills surrounding the central Salvadoran town of Suchitoto. The exhumation began in September 2011, and slightly more than a year later, on Oct. 27, the remains of the victims were turned over to their families for burial.

“I feel happy and satisfied,” Escobar says. “I can rest now, knowing that they’re no longer abandoned.”

Five of the 18 victims in the grave – victims of a 1984 Army massacre in the community of San Cristóbal – were Escobar’s family members.

The grave where her family was found is just one of hundreds of mass graves exhumed since the signing of El Salvador’s 1992 peace accords, which brought to a close a 12-year war that left more than 75,000 people dead or disappeared, largely at the hand of the Army. But, unlike most mass graves uncovered by local and international nongovernmental organizations, this one held the remains of mainly children. It was a remnant of the conflict that has garnered renewed attention when late last month, the Salvadoran government publicly apologized for the forced disappearances and killings of hundreds of children during the civil war.  

"Per instructions of the President of the Republic, Mauricio Funes, I ask for pardon, in the name of the Salvadoran government, from the hundreds of families that were victims of the forced disappearance of boys and girls during the armed conflict," said Hugo Martínez, minister of foreign relations, in a press conference. "[Pardon] from these families that suffered infinite pain from being hit by the disappearance of their most beloved and most vulnerable ones.” Mr. Martínez said. 

The public apology was part of a 2011 sentencing by the Inter-American Human Rights Court related to government reparations for the disappearances of six children from three families between 1981 and 1985. Despite the apology, human rights organizations have critiqued President Funes’s government for failing to prosecute any government agents. A truth commission found agents were responsible for 85 percent of the human rights abuses during El Salvador’s civil war, according to a 1993 report commissioned by the United Nations.

'Everyone suffered'

During El Salvador’s civil war, which lasted from 1980 -1992, leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front – which is now the country’s ruling party – took up arms against the US-backed Salvadoran troops and right-wing death squads. The military’s scorched-earth campaign meant it was common practice to eliminate entire towns, killing men, women, and children. In what is believed to have been an effort to invoke terror, it was common practice to “disappear” any surviving children, taking them to orphanages, or adopting them into military or foreign families. Sometimes the children were even forced into the Army.  

“We can’t forget that these children were innocent victims of a cruel war,” says Ester Alvarenga, general coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda, a nonprofit organization working to find children who were disappeared during the war. “The state has an obligation to investigate these cases and bring them to justice.”

With as many as 20 new cases of war-time child disappearances coming to light each year, Ms. Alvarenga estimates that close to 2,000 children may have been disappeared during the war.

So far, Pro-Búsqueda has found 380 of those missing children – 52 of whom had been killed, and many of whom had been adopted into foreign families, mostly in the United States.

Survivor Andrés Antonio Romero’s children were disappeared in a 1983 massacre when his small community of Tenango-Guadalupe was ambushed by the Salvadoran Army. While he survived the massacre – he was imprisoned and tortured for 27 days – his wife and four of his six children were killed. One surviving son was kidnapped and forced into the Army. The second was adopted by a family in the US. With the help of international NGOs, Mr. Romero was able to reunite with both sons more than a decade ago.

But in what Romero called a show of “solidarity,” he attended the mass and burial of the 18 San Cristóbal massacre victims in late October, even though he wasn’t related to any of them.

“Everyone suffered,” Mr. Romero says. “I feel committed because ... I understand what these families are going through, because I suffered just like them.”

A lesson for younger generations

“The exhumation process has been hard, seeing all the children’s little clothes and their things,” says Candelario Antonio Flamenco, whose mother was killed during the San Cristóbal massacre. His sister was identified among the victims in this mass grave.

“But now I can give my sister a Christian burial,” Mr. Flamenco says.

Flamenco says the discovery is important for younger generations who grew up after the peace accords. “I tell my daughter about what I suffered, what we all suffered, but she doesn’t understand,” he says.

“Now, seeing the little coffins, going to the grave site, it will teach her about what happened, and to not forget.”

Most of the bodies of the 75,000 dead or 8,000 disappeared have yet to be found or given proper burials, says Helí Jeremias Hernández of the Madeleine Lagadec Center for the Promotion of Human Rights, the NGO that organized the exhumation and burial of the 18 San Cristóbal massacre victims.

For Escobar, who says she appreciated the president’s apology even though the leftist government was not in power during the war, the burial of her mother and brothers represented the end of her nightmares.

“I feel at peace,” she says. “After being abandoned for so long, now they won’t be forgotten.”

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