El Salvador's suffering lingers on

Date: 2004-07-09
Source: BBC

By Mike Lanchin
BBC, San Salvador

Although 22 years have passed since her two siblings disappeared at the height of El Salvador's civil war, Suyapa Serrano still clings to the hope they might still be alive.

"We have searched and searched, but there has been no trace of them, none at all - but they could still be somewhere," says the 42-year-old Salvadoran.

"Each time a missing child is found from that time, I feel a mixture of happiness and sadness - happiness for the lucky relative, sadness for our family," she adds.

Since the 12-year civil war between the US-backed army and left-wing guerrillas ended in 1992, about 270 youngsters who were separated from their families during the conflict have been reunited with relatives.

Some were located with adoptive parents in El Salvador, others with families in Europe and North America.

But over 700 more are still believed to be missing.

"During the war there were many scorched-earth operations carried out by the Salvadoran army," explains Father Jon Cortina, director of the San Salvador-based Association in Search of Missing Children.

"As part of those campaigns, children were taken by the soldiers and brought back to the barracks. On some occasions they were seized from their families at gunpoint," he adds.

Two young sisters

Suyapa's family was among thousands that fled the army's massive counter-insurgency operation near her home in May 1982.

"We were going towards the Chichilco hill where we were stopped by the soldiers. There was lots of shooting," Suyapa recalls.

Having been separated from her parents, she was left with her two young sisters - aged three and seven.

Suddenly Suyapa was faced with a terrible dilemma.

"I was hearing all that shooting and I was scared, so I told the kids, please stay here, I'm going to get away a little further, so that they don't find us all together."

When she rejoined her father after the soldiers had moved on, they both returned to the spot where she had left the two little girls.

"We couldn't find them, they weren't there," she says starkly.

"I don't feel that I am to blame - it was either them or me. We would all have died if we had stayed together," Suyapa now says, tears welling up in her eyes.

"They were just small kids. How can I forget them? They were my sisters."

Father Cortina says he thinks the army's snatching of children was opportunistic.

"My impression is that the army in the first instance intended just to terrorise the population so they would leave the areas where they lived," Father Cortina says.

"Afterwards the military realised that they could have a good business selling them into adoption outside the country," he adds.

Country transformed

The cases of the missing children has become a thorn in the side of the political class in El Salvador, more than a decade since the war ended with a UN-sponsored peace deal.

More than 75,000 people died in the conflict, tens of thousands were displaced, and the economy was left in ruins.

Since then the country has been transformed by sweeping political reforms - allowing the former guerrillas to take part in elections, disbanding the security forces blamed for human rights abuses and redistributing some plots of land to poor peasant families.

"Those of us who wanted an end to repression, an end to political prisoners... freedom of expression, and free and fair elections - we feel an understandable certain degree of satisfaction with what has been obtained," says Salvador Samayoa, a former leader of the rebels, now the largest political party in congress.

But he admits that there are limitations to what has been achieved.

"I can understand that some people may feel frustrated," he says.

The impression that El Salvador is far from being a united country, despite more than a decade of peace, is reinforced by the lingering contrasts between city and countryside.

American-style capital

The capital, San Salvador, has a distinctly American feel to it - and is full of glitzy US-style shopping malls and fast-food chains.

And since 2001, the US dollar is the country's common currency.

Barely two hours drive outside the city, pot-holed dirt-roads are the only access to the numerous villages where the option for youngsters is to follow the family tradition of subsistence farming, or try their luck by heading illegally to the US - where more than a million Salvadorans already live.

That is not an option for many peasants, like Suyapa.

She already spent several years outside the country with her mother and father, in a Honduran refugee camp, where they sought safety after the little girls disappeared.

One of her surviving brothers was blinded by a mine explosion during the war.

"For me the war is still present - it's present in all the families that do not know the truth about what has happened," says Father Cortina, who spent much of the war as a parish priest in one of the most conflict-ridden areas of the country.

"We do not have the bullets and the bombs now, but we do have the wounds in the hearts of the people," he adds.

Mike Lanchin reported from Central America for the BBC in the 1990s.

His four-part series Legacies of Rebellion is being broadcast on BBC World Service on Mondays at 0805 GMT.


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