El Salvador's war children return to their roots

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The Independent US

They represent a lost generation - thousands of children kidnapped by soldiers or otherwise separated from their parents during the bloody and chaotic civil war that tore apart El Salvador.

Many of them were later adopted and grew up in the United States and Europe, curious about their heritage but knowing nothing of their original families. Many thought their relatives were dead.

More than a decade after a ceasefire that ended the fighting, some of those children are discovering their birth families and learning about their past. A recently completed database established by the University of California Berkeley and an El Salvadorean group, Pro-Búsqueda, is allowing young El Salvadoreans trace their families and, if they choose, to make contact.

"This does a number of things; it fulfils a need on both sides," said Rachel Shigekane, a director of the university's human rights centre. "It helps families who are looking for missing children. It also helps people who might be stuck in limbo [to] move on. Equally, it can help people [discover] who they are and where they are from. It's not always a happy situation but I think people would always say they were glad they did it."

Such a dilemma currently faces Angela Fillingim. The 21-year-old was just six months old when she was adopted from El Salvador by a couple from northern California. It was only in her late teens that she began to think more about her heritage and then, last year, when visiting El Salvador, she made the decision to try and trace her family. She provided a DNA sample to Pro-Búsqueda.

Earlier this year she was told that she has a mother, Blanca Rodriguez, and a younger brother, living in El Salvador. They have corresponded by letter and e-mail and Ms Fillingim is planning to visit El Salvador to meet them. There will be plenty to discuss: Ms Fillingim's mother has only told her that she put her up for adoption because in 1985 "it was not a safe time to have a child".

"It's confusing, to say the least, to have a family that is biologically related and yet emotionally distant," she said. "I know it sounds corny but I think this will be a great opportunity to bring both sides of my family together."

She knows that her mother lived in the north-eastern Chalatenango region of El Salvador, which in 1982 was subjected to a nine-day military operation that killed hundreds. Ms Fillingim said when she meets her birth mother she will ask more about the circumstances of her adoption and also about the identity of her father. "These are questions I will wait for until we meet face to face," she said.

The human rights centre said untold numbers of babies and children were snatched by soldiers from their families during the civil war, which raged in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992, and which left about 75,000 dead and 8,000 missing. It pitched a vicious right-wing military junta against the left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in one of the bloodiest episodes in Central America's history, and arguably represented one of the US's most shameful foreign policy interventions.

The administration of Ronald Reagan, fearful of the spread of Communism and having seen the Socialist Sandinistas sweep to power in Nicaragua in 1979, provided hundreds of millions of dollars of military equipment and training to El Salvador's government forces. It also sent Green Beret military trainers and special forces troops who covertly participated in the fighting, more than 20 of whom were killed.

Many of El Salvador's commanders were trained at the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which taught brutal counter-insurgency tactics and even torture to cadets from throughout Latin America.