exposing the dark side of adoption
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What Did You Do in the War, Mama?



By 3 in the afternoon of Jan. 12, 1981, the village of El Limon had been burned to the ground. That morning, soldiers of El Salvador's National Guard had entered the village, 50 mud houses in the jungle on the side of a mountain, an hour's walk up a rutted dirt-and-stone road from the nearest town. They burned the houses, shot the adults and set one old woman on fire. El Limon is in the province of Morazan, one of two where the Marxist guerrillas were strongest. Two days before, the guerrillas had begun a nationwide offensive, and the military reacted with aerial and ground attacks on villages like El Limon, even though El Limon had no combatants. The military, as the United Nations-sponsored Commission on the Truth in El Salvador concluded 12 years later, was engaged in ''a deliberate strategy of eliminating or terrifying the peasant population in areas where the guerrillas were active. . . . [T]he deliberate, systematic and indiscriminate violence against the peasant population in areas of military operations went on for years.''

From a guerrilla camp in the fold of the next mountain over from El Limon, Felipa Diaz stood in impotent horror as gunshots crackled and smoke rose from the village -- her village, where three of her five children lived with their father and his parents. Felipa had joined the guerrillas a few months before, after soldiers killed her father in his house. She carried a gun and worked as a medic and had with her her oldest son, German, who was 12, and her infant daughter, Lupita.


Esteban, Ricardo and Elsy

, ages 11, 8 and 7, were hiding in El Limon with their grandmother in the ruins of a house. In the afternoon, when it seemed that the troops had left, they came out. Their grandmother left the children on their own for a few minutes, possibly to go find food. When she came back, the children were gone.

The loss of her children endowed Felipa with new fury, and she fought as a guerrilla until the war ended 11 years later. Felipa is a direct and determined woman; she has a ninth-grade education, which is unusual for a campesina in El Salvador. When the war was over, she settled in a new province with German and Lupita. She began work as a traveling health promoter, teaching women about healthy pregnancies and babies. Her own middle children, she assumed, were dead. Then in November 1996, nearly 16 years after El Limon was burned, a young man made his way to her village and invited her to come to San Salvador that weekend to meet her son Ricardo.

This past fall Felipa, who is now 47, and


, now 26, went back to what was left of El Limon and took me with them. Felipa's oldest son, German, now lives nearby, growing corn and beans. The houses that once stood in Felipa's village have left only their footprints, square clearings in the jungle. Ricardo showed me where he and German played as children and where he hid from the soldiers. We sat in silence on a stone ledge for a while, listening to roosters crow. Felipa was crying. ''Sometimes you don't want to remember the past,'' she said, dabbing her eyes. Last year she was reunited with Esteban, who lives in Honduras, but she was thinking of Elsy, who is still missing.

Ricardo, a chubby, happy, affectionate boy of 8 when he was taken, is now a chubby, happy, affectionate man with three children of his own, and he radiates love for his reclaimed mother. He moved in with Felipa for a while and now lives near her. He laughed and joked with German as if they had never been apart.

''They gave us out like chickens,'' Ricardo said of that day 18 years ago. ''They said, 'Anyone who wants one can have one.' '' Soldiers took Felipa's three children back to the military base, where they watched TV for eight days and then were separated from one another. A soldier took Ricardo out of Morazan to his parents' house in the town of Estanzuelas, left him there and returned to the war -- where he was killed 10 days later. But the soldier's aunt, Leonor Maravilla, reared Ricardo as her own son. Even when Ricardo was grown, he saw her every weekend, and he was devastated when she died, in 1989. ''She always said, 'When you are big we will look for your brother and sister,' '' he told me. He never imagined, however, that his mother had lived through the war.

El Salvador is not generally a place of happy endings, and the story of Felipa and Ricardo is an exception in many ways. Their reunion was a warm one, while many are wrenching, disrupting the lives of vulnerable teen-agers and their adoptive parents, most of whom had believed their children were genuinely orphaned or abandoned. The children and their blood families often have political conflicts, as some were adopted by military or pro-military families -- as was Ricardo, who for a time was a soldier himself -- while many of the blood families were members or supporters of the guerrillas, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. There are class conflicts between campesino blood families and children who were taken from them and reared middle class, often outside El Salvador.

Peter Cassidy

, a ninth grader raised in a comfortable home in Princeton, N.J., spoke no Spanish when he was reunited with his Salvadoran family, campesinos so isolated and poor that his older sister had never used a telephone.

Ricardo and Felipa are also exceptional in that they found each other. Ralph Sprenkels, the young Dutch man who brought news of her son to Felipa, is the staff director of an organization called


(busqueda means search), which has reunited 98 disappeared children with their biological families. But Pro-Busqueda has a list of 434 other families who are still searching for children and children searching for their biological parents, and many of the missing are probably dead. There are very likely hundreds more cases yet uncovered in El Salvador, and thousands more across the world in the assaults on civilian populations that are now the hallmarks of war.

Ricardo was also an unusually fortunate disappeared child. For most of the thousands of people ''disappeared'' during El Salvador's 12-year civil war, including many young children, ''disappeared'' means ''killed.'' And the activity of Pro-Busqueda is an anomaly. In a country that will see no trials, no reparations paid by the Government and no official attempt to find out what happened to those who died or vanished, it is one of few organizations actually tending to the wounds of war. The experience of finding out the truth and restoring some of what was taken from the victims has been unsettling for the families involved. But it has ultimately been a healing process in the majority of cases -- an instructive message for a country whose leaders, as one former general put it, have decided to ''throw some forgetting''on the past.

Pro-Busqueda's activities show how much has changed since the war -- and also how little. The armed forces are not killing people. The guerrillas and their supporters are now in politics, where they campaign freely and have won parliamentary and local offices, including the mayoralty of San Salvador, the capital. The governing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA -- a party founded by the death-squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson and whose campaign song during the war went ''El Salvador will be the grave where the Reds will meet their end'' -- is now largely a traditional Latin American rightist party, although one whose dark corners have not been swept out. No one has threatened Pro-Busqueda as it looks for children and prods the military to give information; if any group had tried that during the war, its staff members would surely have been ushered into the Jeep Cherokees with the tinted windows, never to return.

But neither are the organs of Government -- the courts, the armed forces -- helping Pro-Busqueda do what should be the Government's job. El Salvador has a reformed court system and a new civilian police force, but they still provide justice or security largely to the wealthy. The Government is unable to bring decent health care or education to the majority of the poor. The war is over. But El Salvador has essentially returned to the conditions that caused it.

From 1979 to 1991, the civil war took the lives of 75,000 of Salvador's five million people, the vast majority of them noncombatants guilty of nothing more than living in a village like El Limon. Thousands more were disappeared. A million people fled their homes and patches of corn and beans. The war ended because it became obvious that nobody could win, despite the $6 billion in aid to the Government and military from the United States, and despite the fall of Communism, which ended the guerrillas' material support and discredited their ideology. The United Nations brokered a truce, which committed the guerrillas to giving up their fight and the Government to political and military reforms.

Until 1994, few people in El Salvador had heard about the disappearance of children. The practice was known only in the context of


's ''dirty war'' of the late 1970's. Dozens of women in concentration camps there were killed after giving birth, their babies taken by military families for themselves or friends. An organization called the

Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo

has documented 62 cases and used the courts to return 32 of the children to their blood families. Some of the complicit adoptive parents have even served jail time for the fraudulent adoptions. Four top members of the Argentine ''dirty war'' junta and several other high-ranking military officials are now facing prosecution.

The stealing of children for adoption is doubtless a widespread occurrence in modern war, the victims of which tend to be not combatants but villagers and other civilians. But it has become a public issue in only a few places. Argentina's Grandmothers have met with groups of Turkish Kurds who have lost children.


, emerging from a 36-year civil war during which at least 150,000 people were killed, must have thousands of disappeared children. Guatemala's truth commission, which is now completing its report, will most likely discuss some of these disappearances, in part because staff members of Pro-Busqueda went to Guatemala City to lobby them.

In El Salvador, Pro-Busqueda does not seek to take children away from adoptive families. For one thing, the circumstances of disappearance are varied. Pro-Busqueda knows of only one child taken by the guerrillas, an 8-year-old boy believed to have been pressed into combat. In about a quarter of the cases investigated by the group, the children were genuinely lost -- separated from their families in the confusion following a military assault.

Most of the disappearances, however, were clear-cut military crimes. Pro-Busqueda has collected testimonies from women whose children were yanked out of their arms and shoved into helicopters while they watched, screaming, and soldiers told them their children would now be reared to serve the nation, not subvert it. Most of the children, like Ricardo, were taken by soldiers in attacks on villages -- 50 in one single military operation. Military officials I spoke with argued that the taking of children was a humanitarian act, as soldiers could not leave a child wandering around a village that had been reduced to bodies and ashes -- a bit of humanitarianism that would have been unnecessary had a village of civilians not been wiped out to begin with.

In a forum on the issue in 1995, Gen. Adolfo Blandon, retired, who was chief of the military from 1983 to 1988, more or less congratulated the military for rearing two boys on an air-force base after their mother ''abandoned'' them in a guerrilla zone. One brother was in the audience and raised his hand. ''I don't deny the military treated us well,'' Mauricio Guardado said. ''But 'abandoned' is the wrong word, since I saw my mother killed in front of me.''

Pro-Busqueda staff members say they know of about 20 cases of children adopted by military officers, some of them high-ranking. About half the 98 children that Pro-Busqueda has so far located were adopted by foreign families -- 14 in the United States. While the families acted in good faith, many others in the process did not. Shady lawyers forged papers for children and death certificates for parents. Certain judges became renowned for the speed of their overseas adoption cases. According to The Boston Globe, which first reported on El Salvador's disappeared children, the United States Embassy didn't do investigations before granting adoption visas until the late 1980's. The practice changed in part because several officials of and lawyers associated with the Atlacatl Battalion, the American-trained elite unit infamous for the El Mozote massacre, were implicated in child trafficking. Before then, the embassy had only demanded documents easily forged by unscrupulous lawyers.


-- the organization's full name translates as the Association in Search of Disappeared Children -- began its work in 1994 in Chalatenango, another province that had been partly controlled by the guerrillas and therefore subject to harsh bombardment and military sweeps. The organization was founded by Jon de Cortina, a Jesuit from Bilbao, Spain, who has lived in El Salvador since 1955. Now 64 and a Salvadoran citizen, de Cortina teaches engineering at the University of Central America in San Salvador, a Jesuit school, but spends most of the week two hours away in Chalatenango, where he tends to a parish of 1,200 families. During the week of Nov. 16, 1989, a guerrilla offensive around San Salvador prevented de Cortina's usual trip to the capital. So he was not at the Jesuit residence when soldiers broke in and murdered six of his fellow priests, their cook and her daughter. When de Cortina heard about it on the radio, his own name was announced as one of the dead. ''I touched myself to make sure I was alive,'' he told me, patting his chest.

Various families in de Cortina's parish had lost children. In 1994, he and Sprenkels, then 25, formed Pro-Busqueda with a budget of $2,000, donated by Dutch citizens. Sprenkels now heads the organization, and de Cortina serves as its unpaid director. Last year Pro-Busqueda raised $200,000, mostly from European agencies, which pays for a small house in a middle-class neighborhood of San Salvador and a staff of 14.


was found because a man who served in the unit that stormed El Limon contacted the family in January 1996 to say that he had seen the children in a barracks. Felipa and German went to the Morazan branch of the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, a new Government organization. The Ombudsman referred them to Pro-Busqueda. Sprenkels went to see the former soldier, who said he thought that one of the children had been adopted by a family in Estanzuelas. There, a city official eventually led him to Ricardo's adoptive family.

When they think they have found a child, Pro-Busqueda investigators always call the adoptive parents first and ask them to break the news. All have agreed but four, and every child contacted has decided to meet his or her blood family. In about 25 cases, an American group,

Physicians for Human Rights

, has performed DNA tests to insure a correct match. The average age of the children is 15 when found, although one girl was 8 and some, like Ricardo, are in their middle 20's and living on their own. Pro-Busqueda's main role is simply to introduce the children and their blood families. What happens next is up to them.

Late last February,

Kathleen Cassidy

came home from work to find a message on the answering machine from a Ralph Sprenkels, saying he had information that was probably connected to her son. Kathleen, an administrator for the State of New Jersey, had adopted Peter, now 16, in 1985. When she called Sprenkels back the next day, he told her that he had found her through adoption records. If her son was Ernesto Sibrian, he said, his family wanted to find him. He mentioned that Ernesto had been wounded in his right arm.

Kathleen was panicked. There was no question he was talking about her son. Peter has only partial use of his arm, which still contains bullet fragments, and Ernesto Sibrian was his name in the orphanage. ''I didn't know what their motives were,'' she said recently. ''Maybe they wanted him to come back to El Salvador, maybe there was something wrong with the adoption.''

By the time she had flown to El Salvador for the adoption in November 1985, it had already been legally approved. She did not even need to appear in court. The American adoption agency assured her the boy had no family. ''I always suspected Peter was a victim of the war and his mother was probably killed,'' Kathleen said. ''I also suspected there was a family there, and it would be nice if he could find them someday. My feeling was that he was almost 3, and had been in the orphanage for a period of time. What were the chances that he was going to end up with a family? Either I adopt him, or he is in an orphanage.''

At dinner a few days after the phone call from Pro-Busqueda, Kathleen told Peter that his sister and grandparents had been looking for him. She proposed going to meet them in El Salvador when the school year was over.

''Let's go right away,'' Peter said. After a week, neither of them could stand it. During spring break, a month after they got the news, they flew to El Salvador.

Until then, Peter had been a more or less typical ninth grader at Princeton High School. He and Kathleen, who is 55 and single, live in a small, rustic-cottage-style house with a wood stove. Peter listened to Nirvana and owned a cell phone and beeper. Though he didn't speak Spanish, he was interested in El Salvador. He knew from the orphanage records that he had been in a hospital in Chalatenango, and knew from the bullet fragments in his arm and the nightmares that woke him up screaming until he was 5 that something terrible had happened. He and Kathleen visited the country when he was 11, and again in the summer of 1997. ''I learned all about what had happened in the place I had lived,'' Peter says. ''But finding my family seemed impossible.''

On March 29, Kathleen and Peter drove two and a half hours from San Salvador to Guarjila, a village in the hills above Chalatenango. Kathleen took a friend who lived in San Salvador and, as Peter's translator, a teen-ager who lived in Chalatenango and spoke English. The Sibrians had invited all their relatives, about 50 people, and had prepared a lunch of chicken and rice, tortillas and cheese, bought with money from Pro-Busqueda. During the day Kathleen hung back, talking to her friend. ''I couldn't imagine how they could meet Peter and accept me,'' she told me.

Peter's relatives surrounded him, none with more emotion than his sister, Lilian, who had felt responsible for losing him. On Aug. 28, 1984, Peter was nearly 2 and Lilian 6 when the Atlacatl Battalion began an air attack on El Tamarindo, a Chalatenango town of guerrillas and their noncombatant supporters, among them Peter's mother, Eulalia, who worked for the guerrillas as a cook. Just before a group of fleeing noncombatants could cross the Gualsinga River, the army surrounded them, killing at least 50 people. Eulalia was fleeing with Peter and Lilian in tow. She had stopped to rest on a rock and Peter was in her arms and Lilian at her feet when she was shot. Peter now knows that the bullet in his arm probably killed his mother. As Lilian recounts the story today, she was covered with her mother's blood and tried to pull Eulalia up by her hands. ''Mommy, run,'' she said, over and over, until a soldier came over and stopped her and pulled her away.

Soldiers took the children by helicopter back to a base. Lilian would not let go of her brother. ''I'll take care of him,'' she insisted. But Peter was taken to a hospital in Chalatenango. That was the last she saw of him until she hugged him in the yard of her house last year, her own 2-year-old son by her side.

Late that afternoon Kathleen and Peter went back to San Salvador. Then Peter returned to the Sibrians by himself for three days. He moved into a cousin's room in the house his grandparents, Narcisa Menjivar and Carlos Sibrian, share with eight or so members of their family. The large stone house was empty when the Sibrians came to Guarjila from their refugee camp in Honduras after the war ended, and they simply moved in. They cannot afford electricity. Entertainment is a transistor radio; plumbing consists of an outhouse and a hose a five-minute walk away. Peter was bothered by the fact that the pigs, turkeys and chickens the Sibrians raise in their mud yard to sell kept coming into the house. Nor would he eat tortillas or beans, the only foods the Sibrians ate. He went to a grocery store in town and bought corn flakes, milk and soft drinks, or he ate at de Cortina's house, a 20-minute drive away.

When Kathleen came to pick him up, she had with her a simple white cross, on which she had written ''Eulalia Sibrian.'' One of Peter's uncles added the date of her death. Kathleen and the others drove about an hour and a half to the Gualsinga River, where Eulalia is buried in a mass grave. They found a large stone where she might have been sitting when she died. Eulalia's father dug a hole for the cross, and Peter placed next to it a photograph of himself and Lilian. At first everyone stood in silence around the cross, listening to the birds. Then Peter's grandmother, choking back tears, began to pray.

During the summer Peter went back by himself for eight days, and he plans to spend the whole summer this year, helping a priest from New York who works with Guarjila's youth. Lilian, who writes to her brother frequently (a Pro-Busqueda psychologist translates the letters), visited Princeton in December and handled a trip to New York City and the freezing weather with aplomb.

''I felt this is a journey we were supposed to take,'' Kathleen said. ''He looks like them, smiles like them, has an energy level like them. I understand him better because of it.'' Both Kathleen and Peter now feel they have relatives in El Salvador. ''This is the coming together of two revolutionary families,'' said Kathleen, whose father in Ireland was part of the Irish Republican Army. ''Peter is very proud of his guerrilla cousins.''

Peter and Lilian still communicate mainly through roughhousing. ''I didn't have the feeling of family at first,'' he said. ''I didn't really feel connected to Lilian. One of them joked that I should come back and live year-round. I was like, no way. I need a washer and dryer and TV. I'm like Bill Gates down there. But I do feel like I have a split personality.'' His room in Princeton is covered with posters of Sandra Bullock and Kurt Cobain and the faces of Salvadoran disappeared. His walls have lists of the Sibrians' birthdays and photos of cousins holding guns. He has a small black-and-white photo of his mother at 20, one of Lilian, a picture of the family around Eulalia's grave. He is still too young to understand the limits of the Sibrians' lives and the full impact of Kathleen's decision to adopt a Salvadoran child.

''He is dealing with it on the emotional level of having a sister and finding his family,'' Kathleen said of her son. ''But he doesn't have enough life experiences yet to grasp the comparisons, to ask why we live so opulently here.''

The first reaction of most of the adoptive families' to a call from Pro-Busqueda is the same as Kathleen Cassidy's -- terror. Investigators tell the parents that they are not looking to take away the child, but it can take months of lobbying to persuade adoptive parents to inform the child. Politics can intrude; one young woman was initially forbidden by her family to meet her blood family because her mother and brother had been guerrillas.

Although only six children have gone to live with their biological families (in part because many children are older), relationships in the adoptive families do change. ''Some adoptive parents feel threatened and become more protective,'' said Rosa America Lainez, who coordinates Pro-Busqueda's psychologists. ''Sometimes the children begin to say, 'You're not my parents, I don't have to listen to you.' ''

At one of the monthly workshops that the psychologists run for the children, several told me they had felt guilty about not loving their blood families right away. ''It helps to know that you don't develop love overnight, that you establish a relationship by sharing things,'' one boy said. Some of the middle-class children are embarrassed by relatives who have no teeth or work as market vendors.

Some of the encounters take place in Pro-Busqueda's offices. While the child and blood family usually settle into a pattern of increasingly comfortable visits, the first encounters are often so awkward that Lainez and her staff sit at the table to introduce subjects of conversation. A number of reunions were outright disasters. One, which took place in a young woman's home, disintegrated when the mother, a former guerrilla, would not talk to her after seeing a picture of Alfredo Cristiani, then the President, on her wall.

The day before I spoke with Lainez, she was at a reunion in which the children shouted at their blood parents: ''Why did you try to find us? Why didn't you just leave us alone!'' Some children accuse their blood parents of abandoning them, which is often what they were told by their adoptive families. But Pro-Busqueda's staff members told me despite difficulties like these, no child has ended up sorry to have found out the truth. The dozen or so children I met all said that having two families has enriched their lives.

Ricardo and Felipa's relationship was one of the instant successes. The family in Estanzuelas led Sprenkels to Ricardo, who was 24, working as a security guard in San Salvador and living with his girlfriend and two children. When Sprenkels finally reached him -- Ricardo had no phone of his own -- he wanted to meet Felipa right away. They agreed that Ricardo would meet Lainez, the psychologist, on a Saturday morning, four days later, at a Mister Donut near Pro-Busqueda. Then he would meet Felipa at noon. He spent the week wondering if she would recognize him.

On the day he would meet his mother, Ricardo showed up with Luis Eduardo, his adoptive brother, who was crying. ''Don't take him from me, I'm going to lose my brother,'' he said over and over. Ricardo was jumpy. Lainez warned him that many years had passed, and it was natural that he might not feel anything for Felipa.

Meanwhile, Gianina Hasbun, another psychologist, was prepping Felipa in Pro-Busqueda's offices. ''Don't expect too much right away,'' Hasbun told her. ''You've been hoping to find him for 15 years, but for him it has not been a priority. You may not return to the same love and emotion as before. Sometimes the children are very distant.''

Ricardo wasn't. Hasbun recalled: ''It was one of our re-encounters where the two most clicked. Often the children hug their parents, but it is out of custom and not feeling. Ricardo was an exception.''

Felipa told me: ''He looked exactly like German. But he asked me if I was his mother three times. He was expecting an old lady.''

After a few hours of conversation punctuated by the tears of Ricardo's adoptive brother, everyone got up. ''I'm taking my mother to meet my adoptive family,'' Ricardo announced. They went to the house of his adoptive sister, Fredes, and Felipa and Fredes stayed up all night talking, crying a little. Felipa visited several times, taking the bus and carrying sweets or one of her chickens, live. After a few weeks, Ricardo, whose relationship with his girlfriend had been deteriorating, went to live in Felipa's house in the countryside.

Ricardo spent four months there, but to Felipa's amusement, he proved to have little aptitude for tending her corn. Then he moved into Felipa's mother's house in San Miguel, about an hour away. He now works distributing toothpaste and other household goods to stores on his bicycle. He and his new girlfriend, Aracely, have a baby son and live in a small house belonging to one of Felipa's brothers. He seems completely content.

Since its inception, Pro-Busqueda has taken eight cases of disappeared children to the courts. (As in many other Latin American and European nations, private parties in El Salvador can initiate cases.) Five cases have been closed and three are technically still open, but with no progress expected. No case has gone to trial, much less led to finding a child or to convicting someone of a forced disappearance.

I sought out a judge in charge of one of the cases. Jaime Ayala, a serious, mustachioed judge of Criminal Court No. 2 in the city of San Vicente, went through the case file with me page by page. It began on Nov. 15, 1996, when a woman filed a complaint alleging that her 3-year-old son,

Jose Ruben Rivera

, was taken on May 18, 1983, by members of the Fifth Infantry Brigade during one of its periodic military sweeps in the canton of La Joya. Later, a family member heard that the boy had been spotted in the Fifth Infantry Brigade's headquarters.

The judge who received the complaint was Ayala's predecessor, Oscar Chavez. On May 14, 1997, Chavez wrote to the commander of the Fifth Brigade to ask whether the brigade had any record of the child. The commander wrote back that it did not, and for that matter had no record of any operation that day in La Joya.

Two months later, Chavez wrote the commander requesting to see the brigade's logbook. The commander and the judge agreed on a date, and on Sept. 16 Chavez went and looked at the book. The relevant page showed no evidence of Jose Ruben's presence or an attack on La Joya. ''Having exhausted the necessary means,'' Chavez wrote on Oct. 2, 1997, the case was archived -- essentially closed. And that was it. Ayala took it over when Chavez retired a month later, but he has done nothing.

Can you reopen it? I asked Ayala. Could you, for example, investigate whether in fact the Fifth Brigade was in La Joya that day?

''I could reopen it,'' Ayala mused. ''But I am spending my time learning the new penal process, and now we are paying much more attention to our new cases. Besides, it seems suspicious to me that the mother waited so long to bring the case.''

It didn't seem suspicious to me -- before she heard about Pro-Busqueda she had no lawyer and no idea she could go to court. Ayala did have a formidable backlog of cases. But the larger problem is that he did not see his predecessor's efforts as deficient. Judge Chavez had exhausted the necessary means, a phrase that evidently did not include confirming whether a military operation had taken place, calling anyone in the military to testify or even finding out who were the officers in the Fifth Brigade at the time.

And yet compared with other cases, this investigation was thorough. It was the only one of Pro-Busqueda's cases in which the judge actually left his office to go look at something. Most of the other cases were closed after the judge simply wrote to the brigade asking if there was a record of the child. One case was closed because the brigade commander had died, another because the brigade had been dissolved.

Margarita Estrada, who manages Pro-Busqueda's legal cases, was only a law student when she started the job. ''We didn't need a specialist,'' she said. ''We just needed someone to press everyone.'' She called judges every week, brought them witnesses, gave them copies of the relevant international treaties that El Salvador had signed. ''We almost took over their role,'' she said. ''I want the system to function. I want them to find the kids. We've found 100 children and they haven't found even 1, with all their power and resources. They are just not interested.''

It didn't help that these are military cases. ''You mention the military and people are afraid, even in common crimes,'' Estrada said. But their progress was business as usual in El Salvador's courts. The judiciary is so ineffective and so submissive to wealth and power that the U.N.-sponsored truth commission recommended six years ago that no attempt be made at justice until the courts were reformed.

A new Supreme Court has replaced one dominated by the right-wing ARENA party. Last year, courts began replacing their old procedures, in which the judge did the investigation and arguments took place in writing. The new methods, which include an adversarial system and oral argument, may make trials faster and investigations somewhat more thorough. But other U.N. recommendations were ignored. The most important was a suggestion that 50 judges considered particularly corrupt or incompetent be investigated and possibly removed. A few were dismissed, but others were merely reassigned or left alone.

One new institution that did seem promising was the Human Rights Ombudsman's office, which investigates human rights complaints. At Pro-Busqueda's urging, the Ombudsman looked at five cases of disappeared children, including that of Jose Ruben Rivera. It issued a resolution criticizing Chavez and urging Ayala to reopen the case and get information from the military. The Ombudsman's office easily found evidence contradicting some of the army's claims.

It recommended that prosecutors be more aggressive and that the armed forces find the children, indicate the guilty and pay reparations. The resolution stated that forced disappearance did take place and blamed the armed forces -- the only time a Salvadoran Government body has admitted the state had committed this crime. It also argued that the cases should be investigated despite a 1993 amnesty law covering all political crimes, as disappearance was an ongoing and still current crime that did not end until the person or body was found.

But the Ombudsman's office has no real powers. Virtually none of its recommendations have been heeded. And now the office is being gutted. It once had a respected and aggressive chief. But its new head, Eduardo Penate Polanco, not only has no background in human rights but also was himself the object of complaints taken to the Ombudsman for his alleged violations of due process when he was a judge. He has let go some of the most effective staff members and dropped investigations. The office is now using law students to work on many cases.

When peace came, the question of whether it would last and whether El Salvador would carry out reforms turned largely on the disposition of the country's most powerful institution, the one that had committed the vast majority of the crimes of the war -- the military. It has, for the most part, conducted itself well since the war's end. It is now half its former size. When a U.N.-sponsored group called the Ad Hoc Commission -- a sister group to the truth commission -- accused more than 100 officers of human rights violations and recommended that they be purged or reassigned, the military eventually complied, although so slowly that many on the list were able to simply retire, at full pension.

El Salvador's military claims to be the first in Latin America to have a high-ranking human rights adviser. A human rights office sponsors training for soldiers. ''The military has done more than any other institution to comply with the peace accords,'' says Gen. Adolfo Blandon, the former armed forces chief. One indication of change is that today, Blandon is mayor of his hometown of Cojutepeque, worrying about schoolhouse repair.

But reform is not complete. After several FMLN leaders were killed in what seemed to be traditional death-squad murders in 1993 and 1994, the Government established a committee to investigate. In August 1994, the group concluded that death squads remain but have branched out into organized crime, and that current members of the army and police were involved.

Some of the military's new enthusiasms seem designed for external consumption. Maj. Mauricio Acosta, a lawyer who runs the human rights office and is also responsible for looking into cases of disappeared children, received me in the armed forces' press office. One of his projects was a human rights literary contest. Any soldier could submit a poem, essay or short story on a human rights theme. A $500 prize was offered in each category, and so far there were 70 entries. One aspect of human rights the military is showing no interest in is the search for missing children. The only cases of missing children Acosta said he knew of were two boys reared on an air-force base, and they were reunited with their families when they responded to a newspaper ad placed by Pro-Busqueda. The military has found no children, and Acosta did not even claim it was looking. De Cortina says that he has been asking the armed forces for information since 1993. He got an invitation to military headquarters and was told to come alone. He refused.

Pro-Busqueda staff members have met three times with military officers. At the most recent meeting, Acosta asked Pro-Busqueda to provide a list of the officers it suspected of rearing disappeared children. The group refused. ''We were worried that the officers would send the children away or destroy the records,'' said Estrada, the organization's legal director. Pro-Busqueda offered to work with the military on one case at a time. So far, the armed forces have not responded.

De Cortina is not the only one critical of the military's efforts. Rather surprisingly, General Blandon told me: ''The office has not functioned like it should. Instead of letting it operate on its own, the Defense Minister must direct it to find the children who came from the battlefield in the hands of officials. They need to search intelligence records for information and call on every official who has such children to come forward.''

When I repeated Blandon's views to Acosta, he bristled. ''We don't have the slightest interest in covering up,'' Acosta said. ''It's just that without the information, how can they expect us to proceed?''

I asked why the military was not cooperating with judicial efforts to investigate these cases. ''It is not our job to call people to testify,'' he said. ''We are subordinate to civilian power. Let judges call them.''

They don't know whom to call without your help, I said.

''Neither do we,'' Acosta replied crisply. ''Remember that the military was cut in half.'' Besides, he said, the accusations were spurious. ''Various tribunals have closed cases because there is no proof,'' he said. That bit of circular reasoning neatly sums up present-day El Salvador. People can try to work for justice. Unlike before, the state will not attack them. It will simply ignore them.

''Things are calmer today,'' said Narcisa Menjivar, Peter's grandmother. ''Before we had to live with machine-gun fire and the idea that our children could die. We were hiding under our beds when planes passed by. Now we can eat our tortillas in peace.'' But since the family's bean crop rotted a few months ago, they eat nothing but tortillas. During my day with them in November, Menjivar began to make tortillas for lunch and offered me one. She was clearly embarrassed not to have more to offer -- and relieved when I declined.

Many on the left in El Salvador argue that although there is now political space for FMLN politicians, the peace accords have brought few improvements for the average person. Rural people are as poor as they were during the war. As in other countries emerging from dictatorship or war, from Russia to South Africa to Guatemala, crime has soared. El Salvador now has probably the highest murder rate in Latin America, averaging 7,211 per year over the last three years. Last year 628 people were murdered in New York City, which has a larger population than El Salvador. In some parts of the countryside people lock themselves in their houses after dark. There are more than a million illegal guns in El Salvador, most left over from the war. Some of the old death squads have become criminal gangs or cocaine-smuggling rings or vigilante groups that kill people they consider homosexuals or criminals. The courts are still so feeble and corrupt that fewer than 2 percent of all murder cases see convictions.

The new civilian police force includes former soldiers and guerrillas. Unlike their militarized predecessors, the new police do not go out on missions to kill. But they can be brutal and have not yet mastered investigative methods to replace the old one, torture. The Government group that investigated the death-squad murders recommended changes in the police, but as usual nothing was done. Reform was blocked by an ARENA-dominated congress that may be rooting for a civilian police force to fail.

The peace accords sought to create not just a working Government but one of common institutions as well, encompassing guerrilla and soldier, to begin to knit back together a fractured nation. In this they have had more success. The way ordinary Salvadorans are able to live together, no matter what their ideological pasts, shows how much easier it is to reconstruct society after political conflicts, like those of El Salvador, than after ethnic wars, like those of Bosnia or Rwanda.

At 14, Ricardo left home to go live in a military base as a ''nino de la Guardia,'' one of the children who work as aides to National Guard soldiers. His adoptive family supported the military, but he joined ''because I liked the uniform and the jungle boots,'' he told me, grinning. Homesick, he quit after a few months. But the next year he volunteered for the military, and he saw combat. It did not appeal to him, and he once again left after six months.

Ricardo had never doubted his decision to fight, which he saw as defending his country from Communism. But a few weeks after his reunion with Felipa, he attended a Pro-Busqueda workshop with other children, who criticized him for joining what they considered a murderous army. ''It was the first time he had ever felt questioned about this,'' said Hasbun, the psychologist. ''He was very upset. We talked to him about it and told him that was his choice, and no one could judge him.''

One guerrilla woman whose son was taken by soldiers began to have nightmares years later, when the son reached military age, that she was facing him on the battlefield. ''Ricardo and Felipa could have met face to face,'' says Hasbun. But each understands why the other fought, and now both play it down. ''Oh, Ricardo only joined the army for a few days,'' Felipa said, waving the question away. ''He was a kid.'' Ricardo blames the war, not his mother, for her decision to fight and leave her children behind. ''We don't talk about politics,'' says Ricardo. ''You can't forget, but you have to be able to communicate about other things. It's over.''

Felipa and Ricardo have found with each other that holy grail sought by nations after tyranny dies or war ends -- reconciliation. But they are mother and son, and both foot soldiers innocent of crimes. Felipa is not ''reconciled'' about the killing of her father in his bed. Narcisa Menjivar, Peter's grandmother, is grateful to Kathleen Cassidy for raising Peter with love, but she wants justice for those who killed her daughter. ''It hurts me not to be able to see her body,'' she said. ''God will have to find a punishment, because I don't know if justice is possible.''

Even though most of the crimes of the war are now 15 years in the past, there is still a clamor for justice in El Salvador. The University of Central America held an all-night vigil on Nov. 14 to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the Jesuits' murder in San Salvador. I expected to find a dozen people. There were thousands, from all over the country, many of them in their teens or 20's. Some handed out pamphlets about massacres in their villages, asking for justice.

It will not come soon. The peace accords established the Commission on the Truth, which received 22,000 complaints of human rights violations and issued a report on March 15, 1993. It attributed the majority of atrocities to the military, paramilitary death squads and right-wing extremists. The report analyzed the patterns of abuses, examined a few cases in depth and made recommendations. But five days later, an ARENA-dominated Legislature attacked the report as biased, made lofty statements about reconciliation and passed an amnesty law for all political crimes, rejecting calls from other parties at least to link amnesty to reforms.

Granting amnesty is a habit in El Salvador; Parliament passed amnesty legislation in 1987 and in 1992 as well. But the 1993 version was the most comprehensive. The FMLN party, too new to have seats in the assembly, grumbled but not excessively, as several of its own leaders were accused of crimes and also benefited from the amnesty.

So the truth commission is all the victims will get -- no compensation for their losses, no documentation of the crimes, no justice. Amnesty applies not after a defendant has been tried and found guilty, but before the trial. The judge may only investigate to determine whether the crime was a political one. Human rights lawyers have already tried to challenge the amnesty in court, with no success.

The men and women who waged the war have chosen to pardon one another and call it reconciliation. Blandon told me stories about his cordial gatherings with former enemy officers. ''I was with my counterpart from when I commanded the First Brigade, and we reminisced about chasing each other,'' he said. ''He told me that I was once stopped in a place where he was hiding with a grenade. If I had found him, we would both have died.'' Blandon paused. ''This was a friendly conversation. Is it worth it to reopen wounds when we've been able to throw a little forgetting on them?'' he said. He was one of several military men I met who used the word ''forgetting'' as something positive. I had never before, in any country, heard people use the word that way.

Given the weakness of El Salvador's judicial system and the power of the military, it is understandable that many see amnesty as the prudent choice. But this is very different from reconciliation, which cannot take place at gunpoint. The experience of the disappeared children and their families shows that uncovering the past and righting what can in some small measure be righted is painful and disruptive. But for most of them, it has produced some kind of reconciliation -- and they may be the only victims of the war to have achieved it.

''They talk about pardon and forgetting,'' de Cortina said. ''But no human being can forget what happened to a loved one -- if you can, you are not a human being. Pardon is possible, but you have to know whom to pardon. You can't pardon the universe, or the fog. God only pardons those who repent. Why should we be more generous than God?''

Tina Rosenberg writes editorials for The Times. Her last article for the magazine was about Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen.
1999 Feb 7