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Salvadoran group dogged in search for children missing years ago in civil war

For many searching for loved ones, the only hope is a determined Salvadoran organization using detective work, modern tools such as Facebook and plenty of pluck to solve the wartime disappearances.

July 13, 2011|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Enma Orellana, 60, of Guarjila hopes that one day she will find her daughter, who was 4 when seized in 1982 by soldiers during El Salvador's civil war. She is shown with granddaughter Enma Joceline, 6, who would be her missing daughter's niece.
Enma Orellana, 60, of Guarjila hopes that one day she will find her daughter,… (Alex Renderos / For The Times )

Reporting from Guarjila, El Salvador — Her name is Milagro, or it was before her mother's heart broke into a million bits.

The girl was 4, dark-toned and skinny. On the day soldiers took her away, she wore a violet dress with short sleeves and tiny pleats. She had no shoes.

"They took my girl and said, 'Go, old lady!'" recalled her mother, Enma Orellana. The woman ran in fear, looking back just once, when the girl cried, "Mama!"

That was 29 years ago, when El Salvador waged war with itself and left hurts that have never healed. In the turmoil, more than 800 children disappeared, often into the hands of Salvadoran soldiers who used brutal tactics to battle leftist rebels and sympathizers.

The youngsters, including some whose parents had died, often ended up in orphanages under made-up names. Many were funneled by unscrupulous lawyers into a lucrative international adoption market or kept by the same military officers who took them. At least 400 remain missing.

Two decades after the end of the civil war, many Salvadoran parents — and, often, the children themselves — still search for loved ones, despite dimming memories and a trail that grows fainter each day.

For many, the only hope is a determined organization that uses shoe-leather detective work, modern tools such as Facebook and plenty of pluck to solve the wartime disappearances. It succeeds more often than you would think.

Orellana's dream to see her daughter again rests with the group, called the Assn. for the Search for Missing Children and known as Pro-Busqueda. Over the years, it has located nearly half of the disappeared, with the largest number in El Salvador and the second-most in the United States. Adoptees have been tracked to Italy, Mexico, Germany and Belgium.

A nephew of Orellana's was tracked to France a few years ago. He had disappeared during the same army sweep in the northern province of Chalatenango in May 1982 that caught Milagro.

Encouraged by the discovery of the young man years after the war, Orellana, 60, a former schoolteacher, prays and still allows room for happy news about Milagro, whose name means "miracle." Her memory freezes Milagro in childhood. She has no photos of her daughter, not even a scrap of her clothing. So many years later, unanswered questions keep Orellana tossing at night.

"One suffers so by not knowing," Orellana said, dabbing her eyes with a pink hand towel. Outside her spare block house in the forested hills of Chalatenango, chickens scratched in the gravel.

In just the last two years, Pro-Busqueda, founded in 1994 by a Jesuit priest, Jon Cortina, and funded mainly by European foundations and aid agencies, has found nearly 30 of the missing "children." By now, they're grown up, many with families of their own.

The searches are aided by DNA testing — UC Berkeley's Human Rights Center helped create the database for making matches — but still require old–fashioned grunt work.

Investigators hunt leads in dog-eared adoption files and photos from orphanages that operated during the conflict. They tramp onetime conflict zones to trace last known steps and prod residents to recall traumatic, long-ago events. They venture into the most remote corners of the countryside, despite the presence of drug traffickers and dangerous gangs.

"Anyone who wants to think they can solve these from a desk is lost," said Ester Alvarenga, 46, the group's feisty coordinator.

On a recent day, Alvarenga met with Orellana in the rural hamlet of Guarjila, about two hours' drive from the capital, San Salvador. During the visit, Alvarenga hit upon a possible way to reinvigorate the search: finding childhood pictures of one of Milagro's grandmothers, whom the girl closely resembled.

Orellana, who sells some eggs to survive, takes comfort in the daily embrace a 6-year-old granddaughter, Enma Joceline, whose mother migrated to the United States. If she is still alive, Milagro is the girl's aunt.

But leads are few.

"I dream that one day before I die, I might see that she has been found," Orellana said.

Alvarenga's main investigator, Margarita Zamora, understands the torment of those who have no answers. Her mother and four brothers and sisters have not been heard from since that sweep in 1982 when Milagro also vanished. During that operation, at least 50 children are thought to have disappeared while fleeing army troops.

"I am living the same situation they are: the same uncertainty, the same anguish, the same hope," said Zamora, a petite former health worker who joined Pro-Busqueda in 2003.

The group's other successes sometimes make Zamora's own hopes jump, then reality kicks in. Pro-Busqueda has unearthed the bodies of nearly 50 children over the years, a chilling reminder that these stories often end sadly. She acknowledges that the chances of her mother being alive are "nil."

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