'I knew in my heart she was alive': Families in El Salvador are finally reunited with children abducted during the country's civil war

During El Salvador's merciless 12-year civil war, hundreds of children were forcibly taken by the military and illegally put up for adoption, many overseas. Only now, more than three decades since the hostilities began, are some of those children finally finding their families again

Josefina Flores was given two choices: give up her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter – her youngest child – for adoption by a childless couple… or risk all three of her children being shot dead.

It was a decision no mother should have to make, but this was El Salvador in 1984, during one of the bloodiest periods of the tiny Central American nation's brutal 12-year civil war – and Josefina was one among hundreds whose children were forcibly taken and illegitimately put up for adoption after being snatched by the armed forces, which carried out massacre after massacre in rural villages suspected to be supportive of the leftist guerrillas.

Many of the children were given to childless military families within El Salvador, but others were adopted by foreigners and taken overseas. Today, thanks in part to celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna, international adoptions are more commonplace; but a quarter of a century ago, such dealings were rare and poorly regulated, and military personnel made thousands of dollars per child. Adoption agencies back then wrongly described such children as war orphans or as having been abandoned by poverty-stricken mothers.

When the war ended in 1992, with 80,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared, the military-aligned government rushed in a controversial amnesty law which granted immunity from prosecution to all those responsible for murder, kidnap and other human-rights abuses. The nation was told to "forgive and forget", as the government abdicated what many regarded as its responsibility to investigate the atrocities which had torn thousands of communities apart.

But people such as Josefina Flores could not just forget.

In 1994, a Spanish Jesuit priest called Jon de Cortina helped families track down five of the children taken by the army 12 years before, during the La Guinda de Mayo massacre; the children had been dumped at a Red Cross orphanage 100 miles from their village. News spread and mothers such as Josefina came forward to report their missing children for the first time.

Buoyed by this early success, Father Jon created the Pro-Busqueda [Search] Association of Disappeared Children, a charity with a shoestring budget to investigate disappearances.

From the start, a formidable crew of human-rights stalwarts came to the assistance of Pro-Busqueda. Among those from whom Father Jon (who died in 2005, aged 71) sought help was Reed Brody, who later joined Human Rights Watch, but who at that time was working for the UN. In turn, Brody called upon Californian Eric Stover, who a decade earlier had led a ground-breaking team of forensic scientists to Argentina to help the abuelas (grandmothers) identify loved ones killed and buried in mass graves by the generals during its dirty war.

The tiny Pro-Busqueda team in El Salvador quickly mastered important skills: how to elicit complex family histories from people whose memories were often blocked by the trauma they had experienced, and connect particular military operations to disappearances. They meticulously gathered evidence and followed leads without any help from the state. In fact, the military to this day refuses to share vital information it holds, including names and dates, of children stolen. In spite of these obstacles, testimonies and information collected by Pro-Busqueda have been successfully used in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the highest civil court in the Americas), and if the country's amnesty is ever repealed, its archives contain evidence of a high-enough standard to be used in criminal prosecutions.

Pro-Busqueda's dogged investigators have found children in the US, Spain, Italy, Holland, France, Switzerland, Guatemala and Honduras, enormously aided by a pioneering DNA database developed in 2006 with the help of forensic scientists in California.

The association offers vital psychological and social care, including self-help-style groups through which families can support one another. "The trauma caused by these crimes is so, so deep," says Yolaina Salmeron Belli, a psychologist at Pro-Busqueda. "Families who lost children cannot grieve or give up hope because they still don't know if they are dead or alive; and the children grow up without a big part of their identity. Reunions are very special but even then it can take many years for families to reconnect, and sometimes it never happens."

So far, Pro-Busqueda has resolved 389 cases, including 240 family reunions. The other cases include children who were already dead when the association tracked them down and almost 100 who did not want to reconnect with their biological family. The only solace for families of those children is that at least they finally know what became of their kin.

Pro-Busqueda is still helping 550 families search for their disappeared children. Another 103 grown-up children, meanwhile, are registered as looking for their biological families. The DNA database is incomplete because many of those affected, in El Salvador and overseas, still do not know how or where to seek help.

Take those in the United States, which gave funding and training to the Salvadoran army that committed the vast majority of the civil-war atrocities. It issued 2,354 adoption visas to American couples during the civil-war years, but only 61 children, now young adults, have so far been found by Pro-Busqueda.

The Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has provided scientific support to Pro-Busqueda since 2006, helping set-up the DNA registry and training an in-house geneticist in El Salvador. It has recently launched a public-awareness campaign on radio, TV, newspapers, Facebook and Twitter, to try to reach the two million Salvadorans now living in the US (half-a-million migrated to the States between 1980 and 1990, according to the US census). Already one mother forced to give up her baby during the war has come forward.

Many Latin-American countries suffered dirty wars in the second half of the 20th century, in which disappearances were used as a weapon of fear and torture. Yet 21 years after the war ended in El Salvador, it remains the only country in the region where war criminals still enjoy immunity, and new cases keep emerging – 31 in 2012 alone – and old cases keep being solved.

Josefina Flores understands hope and despair. Finally, after 29 years apart, she was reunited with her daughter Xiomara on 2 December last year. "I knew in my heart she was alive somewhere and one day we'd find each other. I dreamt of this moment many times; I never lost hope. I am so grateful to have my daughter back."

Josefina Flores was reunited with her daughter after 29 years (Juan Carlos) Josefina Flores was reunited with her daughter after 29 years (Juan Carlos)
Josefina Flores

Reunited with her daughter after 29 years

Soldiers found Josefina Flores hiding in a ditch with her three young children in 1984. They were taken to a police station where a sergeant pressed Flores to give him the youngest child, Xiomara, aged just one-and-a-half.

"He said his wife couldn't have children, and they could offer her a better life. My husband was dead, we had lost everything, but I said no. He threatened to kill me and all my children; for two weeks he didn't stop, until I gave in."

But the police officer's wife got pregnant within months and gave Xiomara away to another family (who raised her as Carolina).

Pro-Busqueda began searching for a child living with a police family in 1994, but it wasn't until November 2012 that they heard about a woman called Carolina, who was looking for her biological family. They interviewed her, took her DNA, and a year later they matched her to the Flores family. They had been living only 50 miles apart.

On 2 December 2013, more than 29 years after she was adopted, Xiomara, 31, was reunited with her mum, siblings and extended family.

"I dreamt about this day," says Xiomara, who now has three children of her own. "It is the most wonderful feeling that I can finally get to know my family."

Angela Elena Fillingim with her young daughter Angela Elena Fillingim with her young daughter
Angela Elena Fillingim

Reunited with her biological family after 21 years

Angela Elena Fillingim was taken from her mother at birth. She spent six months in a foster home in San Salvador before being adopted by a Californian couple in 1985. They were told by the adoption agency that Angela's biological mother, Blanca, a textile-factory worker, had willingly given her up for economic reasons.

In 2005, Angela went to El Salvador to learn more about her history. On her second day, a staff member at the language school heard her story and sent her to Pro-Busqueda. "Six months later they had tracked down my biological mother and she wrote me a letter," says the PhD sociology student at Berkeley, now 28. "It shook my identity to the core."

Fillingim went to meet Blanca in 2006 and learnt that a crooked lawyer had threatened to kill her had she not given Angela up. Till Pro-Busqueda tracked her down, Blanca had never told a soul about the baby she'd never seen.

"I felt awkward at first, but Blanca immediately felt an intense connection and kept saying, 'Please forgive me.' She felt guilty and ashamed, but I understood that she'd made a very difficult decision to protect me at great sacrifice to herself, so there was nothing to forgive.

"Since having my own daughter," adds Fillingim, "I understand better the ease with which Blanca connected with me and the loss she must have felt at not being able to raise me."

Fillingim spent several months in El Salvador over the next few years, getting to know Blanca – but she died suddenly in October 2013 without ever revealing the identity of Fillingim's father.

Calixtra Melgar is still searching for her son Jose Mauricio Calixtra Melgar is still searching for her son Jose Mauricio
Calixtra Melgar

Still searching for her son, missing since May 1982

In a two-week-long military operation called La Guinda de Mayo ("The Flight of May"), soldiers killed hundreds of civilians, torched dozens of villages, burnt crops and livestock, and chased thousands of peasants into the mountains of Chalatenango in north-east El Salvador. It was one of the war's worst massacres.

Amid the chaos, Calixtra Melgar, then 22, was separated from her husband and three-year-old son Jose Mauricio, as people fled for their lives. She hid without food for several days as military planes bombarded all around. Her baby daughter, Maria Celia, just three months old, died in her arms. Her husband was killed and her son never seen again. Jose Mauricio was one of 53 children taken by the army in that one operation.

"It felt like they killed half the world," she says. "There was practically no one left. But my son's body was never found, so I have always had hope that he could be alive somewhere."

Melgar, now 54, spent days wondering in the mountains before she was found malnourished and mute by an aid worker, who took her to a refugee camp in neighbouring Honduras.

Hugely traumatised, she has since suffered from epilepsy, migraines, asthma and severe depression.

"Many times I wished that I had died too, rather than suffer like this," she says. "I will never have peace until I know what happened to my son – it doesn't matter if he's dead or alive, I just need to know so I can rest."

Pro-Busqueda has so far found 19 of the children taken during La Guinda de Mayo.

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