A seemingly endless line of children, youth, and the occasional adult gathered outside the Feria Internacional in San Salvador the morning of March 29th, 2011. Everyone trickled through the gates one by one and rushed toward a huge ampitheatre decorated with kites and crawling with people for the Day of the Children Disappeared During the Armed Conflict. While the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly first named March 29th the Day of the Children Disappeared During the Armed Conflict in 2007, this Tuesday marked the first time the Salvadoran government participated in the celebration, publicly acknowledging the many children who suffered forced disappearance and separation from their families during the armed conflict. Pro Busqueda coordinated this exciting historic commemorative event together with the Salvadoran Secretariat of Social Inclusion, lead by First Lady Vanda Pignato.
Probusqueda, a Salvadoran non-profit organization dedicated to searching for those disappeared as children during the armed conflict, has spearheaded the fight for truth, justice, and reparations for disappeared children and their families. After seventeen years advocating for families of the disappeared and working with many individuals who were disappeared, for Pro Busqueda to finally hear the government's acknowledgement of responsibility for the many children forcibly taken from their families during the war marked a historical moment. Father Jon Cortina, S.J. started Pro Busqueda together with families from the community of Guarjila shortly after the end of the war. Families have reported over nine hundred cases of disappeared children to the staff of Pro Busqueda, who have found over three hundred people, and continue to search for more than five hundred. Pro Busqueda brought a number of young people who were disappeared and have since been found to the commemoration on Tuesday.
Members of Pro Busqueda opened the event reminding everyone that it was a morning to pause and remember the those children torn from their homes, to share the search so many families and individuals have walked, and through this moment of truth step toward justice and begin to build sanity and reconciliation for El Salvador. They then brought the crowd together chanting “No los olvidamos,” We do not forget them. School groups, individuals, and organizations from all fourteen departments of El Salvador added their voices.
Much of the crowd surged to their feet at the announcement of President Mauricio Funes' entrance. As Funes slowly descended the main staircase with his wife at his side and a trail of dignitaries, members of Pro Busqueda, and victims of forced disappearance behind him, he shook the hand of each of the kids and young adults lined up alongside the stairs, a wide grin lighting his face. Once Presidente Funes and his wife took their seats on the stage, the official commemorative act began. The act included the introduction of a postage stamp for the Day of Children Disappeared During the Armed Conflict, featuring a child's footprints, prizes awarded to university students who wrote essays about disappeared children, and speeches by Ester Alvarenga, Coordinator of Probusqueda, and President Funes. As icing on the cake, those gathered had the pleasure of listening to internationally renowned singer/song-writer Julieta Venegas perform following the commemorative act.
President Funes focused on the need for truth and his efforts to work towards reparations in response to atrocities committed during the armed conflict with the complicity of the Salvadoran government. He emphasized truth as a necessary step towards reconciliation, stating that, “a page should not be turned before it has been read.” He negated statements that dredging up the truth would open up wounds or incite hate, saying that truth is necessary for the dignity of the victims, and is an act of love. He called on the Attorney General to carry out full investigations of past grave human rights violations, in the name of a victim's right to the truth.
For Andrea and José Ramirez, a husband and wife who were both disappeared as children near the beginning of the armed conflict, the president's acknowledgement of disappeared children was an incredibly important first step towards reparation. “Clearly it can't repair everything. It can't give her back her arm,” comments José, referring to Andrea, whose right shirt sleeve hangs loose and empty. “I was separated from my family for twelve years, placed in an orphanage. That can never be undone, I can never get those years back,”says Andrea, voice filled with urgency and passion. “Nevertheless, this is a step, and we feel very happy that the government is acknowledging the disappeared. Past governments never took us into account. Thus recognition from the government makes us as victims feel important.”
José and Andrea hope that this is just the first of many steps, and the government will continue taking action and making reparations. They recognize that this effort will need the support of other branches of government, and will require further investment of funds. “This is an effort we have to carry out all together,” declares Andrea. “It must include the Attorney General's office and the Legislative Assembly as well as the president. The president can have all the best of intentions, but if one of the others stands in the way, nothing will happen. Objectives have been set, like the creation of the National Search Commission. The best of professionals should be appointed. Although even with the best of the best, if the commission doesn't have funding, they will not be able to do anything.”
Angela, a young woman also forcibly disappeared during the war and adopted by a family in the United States, shared the Ramirez's sense of the importance of the moment, while remaining critical but hopeful of what may follow. While Angela felt uncertain as to whether Funes is the appropriate official to offer an apology, since it was not his government who committed the disappearances, and the military also holds heavy responsibility, she found the moment very moving. “I cried. This is what you carry around with you for your whole life, and to know that it's not just you, but that it's part of the national history, and the history that's being written today... it was a very emotional moment.” She found it particularly meaningful to share the moment with other young people who had been disappeared during the war. Peter, a young Salvadoran also taken from his family and adopted by a family in the U.S. wholeheartedly agreed. “One of the most meaningful parts was meeting other people who have been through the same thing. Hopefully we can be role models or provide a support network for others trying to find their families. Each person has a different story, but to be able to talk to someone that has been through something similar is huge.”
Congratulations to Pro Busqueda and to the many families and individuals who searched many months and years for their loved ones! While words can sometimes seem empty, it is the first time that the Salvadoran government has officially and publicly recognized the many children death squads and members of the armed forces snatched from their families and homes during the war, and the deep emotional and psychological pain this caused these individuals, families, and communities – words with weight and meaning. May the ongoing struggle for justice bring many more moments to celebrate.