A Daughter Stolen in Wartime Returns to El Salvador

Date: 2007-04-05

By MARC LACEY
CACAOPERA, El Salvador, April 3 — Suzanne Marie Berghaus finally came home.

Ms. Berghaus, a 26-year-old from the Boston suburbs, walked into a humble homestead here in rural El Salvador on Tuesday and spotted someone a generation older with a face that resembled her own but whom she did not know. Then, mother and daughter embraced.

Soon after, others came for hugs of their own. Confronted with siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews — strangers all — Ms. Berghaus wiped tears from her cheeks. “Hola,” she said, one of the few Spanish words she knows.

This was a family reunion of a most unusual sort. Wrapped in it was a profound personal story as well as that of El Salvador’s bitter civil war, which long ago came to a formal end but still haunts this country in ways large and small.

At age 14 months, Ms. Berghaus had been plucked from a hammock by a government soldier, one of numerous babies snatched by the military during the war in what was part counterinsurgency strategy and part business venture.

Many of the stolen children were sent to orphanages, where they were adopted internationally in a wartime system that had tinges of compassion and greed.

Born into this struggling family in the Salvadoran hinterlands, Ms. Berghaus grew up instead with an American family that was settled, in Wilmington, Mass.

She had peace, paved roads and an ample yard, while her family here was constantly on the run, moving along dirt roads and thick forests to escape the raging war in the eastern Morazán district, not far from the border with Honduras.

Ms. Berghaus said she was too young when she left El Salvador to have any memories of it. But she said that she was aware she had been adopted from El Salvador and that she always wanted to know more about her beginnings.

“I have to face that past,” she said in San Salvador, the capital, on the morning of her reunion. “I’m becoming more of a person. I’m expanding who I am. I’m this whole new person now.”

Becoming that new person meant confronting a horrible incident in which a family of 10 became a family of 9 in one instant.

“It’s horrifying,” Ms. Berghaus said. “I wasn’t hurting anybody. I was playing on a hammock. And then they took me.”

It was February 1982 when soldiers arrived at the makeshift shelter where the family was hiding out in the latest flare-up in the civil war.

The family says that an army officer spotted little María, which was Ms. Berghaus’s name back then, and remarked on how cute she was. Two other little children from the area were being carried away by the soldiers. The officer asked the family if it would give up María.

It was not really a question but an order, the family says. The mother recalled telling the man “no” twice. Still, the little girl was taken away.

“He said: ‘I like this girl. Would you give her to me?’ ” recalled her mother, María Venancia Sáenz, a faraway look coming to her eyes. “We were so full of fear.”

Later, soldiers returned to the house and ordered the parents to report to the local military base, where they were told to put their thumbprints on a form. Like so many children, Salvadoran investigators say, María would be passed along to an orphanage.

The family never knew that María was later adopted by a couple in Massachusetts, that she graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and then completed a master’s degree in social work at Salem State College in Massachusetts. They did not know that she, curious about her birth country, returned to El Salvador on a study trip.

It was that trip last March that changed everything.

Ms. Berghaus contacted Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, a group founded by families seeking out their lost children. She shared a few tidbits that she had learned from her adoption file — her biological mother’s name and the name of her village.

Soon, Pro-Búsqueda’s investigators were on the case. And before long, after searching out records and conducting DNA tests, they found Ms. Berghaus’s birth parents and informed them that their daughter was alive.

Ms. Berghaus, who works at the Council on Aging in Somerville, Mass., discovered that she had siblings who had immigrated to the United States. She arranged reunions with them in California and New Jersey. But those reunions were mere warm-ups for what took place this week in Cacaopera, a tiny village in the Salvadoran hills where the fighting was merciless.

As of the end of last year, Pro-Búsqueda had investigated 787 cases of lost children stemming from the war. Of those, 323 cases had been resolved. Roughly half of those have resulted in family reunions.

Every gathering unfolds differently. Sometimes, they are merely family affairs. Other times, the whole village turns out. Feasts are prepared and tears shed. Some reunions are bittersweet. Often, the lost child finds out one or both parents have died.

In Ms. Berghaus’s case, she found out that she had both a father and a mother as well as numerous siblings and other relatives. Everybody seemed stunned that the little girl they remembered for her big eyes and bright smile had found her way home.

“Time stops for a family like this,” said Mario Sánchez, head of Pro-Búsqueda. “They had an image of their child that is 25 years old. A meeting like this takes some weight off them. They can live now.”

The unresolved cases, however, outnumber the tearful reunions.

Pro-Búsqueda, which receives support from Physicians for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley, complains that the government has blocked its efforts to review military records that would help reunite more families by indicating the names of soldiers involved in various wartime missions. The government contends that it is focused more on building for the future than dwelling on the past.

But the past is not so easily cast aside. In one celebrated case, a mother filed a report with El Salvador’s government in 1993 seeking information on the fate of her daughters, Erlinda and Ernestina Serrano Cruz, who were 3 and 7 when they disappeared in another part of the country in 1982.

Witnesses saw the Serrano Cruz sisters taken away by soldiers. Pro-Búsqueda pursued the case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which issued a ruling in 2005 condemning the Salvadoran government for its handling of the case. The sisters are still missing.

Two years have passed, and Pro-Búsqueda complains that the Salvadoran government, perhaps uneasy at acknowledging all the misdeeds committed by its security forces, has yet to comply fully with the nine major demands made in the court decision.

Some of the government’s failings seem trivial. Ordered by the court to create an official day dedicated to the children who disappeared, the legislature last year instead set aside a day honoring children lost in the war. The court ruled that it was insufficient. So this year, the government set aside a day for children who disappeared but did nothing to observe it.

The government has also set up its own organization to reunite families separated during the war. But that effort has had much less success than the family-led Pro-Búsqueda and is dismissed as window dressing by many parents still seeking out their children.

Those parents dream about a reunion like the one that took place here.

Not long after their initial embrace, mother and daughter seemed to be tentatively forging the relationship that was not allowed to develop years ago. The taciturn father, Valentín Argueta, 73, looked on with pride.

Mrs. Sáenz put her hand on her daughter’s knee and stared into her eyes.

“I talk to her but she doesn’t understand me,” Mrs. Sáenz said in Spanish. “It’s nice that she’s happy. That’s the best thing — that she’s happy.”

She said to her daughter, “You must have a nice family there.”

Ms. Berghaus nodded and cried and looked around the room, taking in all the eyes trained on her.

“There’s so much family I have to get to know,” she said.

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