Through the airplane window, all I could see was blackness: no lights, no indication of security, just blackness. Just the unknown staring up at us we descended from the sky and into San Salvador.
I was nervous. Scratch that; I was terrified. Twenty-year-old me, the youngest person in our group, nicknamed ‘OC’ after my suburban southern California roots. My family could not understand why I was doing this; my grandparents begged me to reconsider.
But I knew I had to go the moment I first heard about a University of Washington Task Force that would be traveling to El Salvador to help reunite families who were violently divided by during the 1980s civil war.
I knew the facts, I knew atrocity had occurred, but that was from my cozy classroom. Now I was actually going to see El Salvador.
Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador was immersed in violent civil war. The government and military, supported by the U.S., commonly used death squads, disappearances and torture. During the war, the U.S. provided more than $5 billion in aid and military assistance to the Salvadoran government.
Over 75,000 civilians died, while thousands more were tortured or ‘disappeared.’ 75,000 people. That’s like the entire population of Bellingham.
Thousands of children were forced apart from their families. Many were sent to the U.S. for adoption, where families were told they’d been orphaned. The baby trade was big business. International adoption lawyers charged up to $20,000 for the adoption of a child.
An estimated 2,354 Salvadoran children were adopted into the U.S. during the war. Asociación Pro-Búsqueda is trying to track these children down and re-connect them with their birth families. It is difficult work.
The organization’s San Salvador offices were violently attacked by gunmen in 2013, ruining an estimated 80% of the documents they had gathered in efforts to reunite families. The government has refused to provide access to records that might help families find their lost children.
Despite these challenges, the organization has successfully reunited over 200 now adult children with their birth families. Hundreds of cases remain unsolved.
“The only thing that [the families] want is to meet them and be sure that the young person knows that they have family in El Salvador that are looking for them,” says Margarita Zamora Tobar, the coordinator of Pro-Búsqueda’s research unit.
The State Department has issued a travel warning for El Salvador, but I always felt safe. We swerved down dirt roads as the summer heat sweltered down from above. We waved at locals who greeted the gringos with a curious look and a “buenas,” and sang, “Dale Salvadoreño ¡Dale!” [Let’s go Salvadorans! Let’s go!] as soon as we learned the popular tune.
At survivors’ homes, we were always welcomed with open arms and plenty of delicious homemade tortillas, rice, and meat. Despite my limited Spanish abilities, a particular word always stood out: “esperanza” [hope].
One of the survivors we interviewed wore a radiant turquoise blue skirt that complimented the lime green walls of her home. As the interview began, I initially felt safe. I was at a distance, protected by both the language barrier and the video camera.
And then, she brought out a photo. Her nine-year-old brother smiling proudly into the camera, hair parted smoothly through the middle. That aged black-and-white photo is all she has left of him; all that remains after the army took him away.
I saw her struggle: the look in her eyes, the tears down her cheek, the slight trembling of her hands as she recalled a much darker time and the initial distance between us crumbled.
During other testimonies, survivors described how they survived rape, torture, massacres. How they saw the army throw their children out of helicopters while others were forcibly taken away. How their homes were burned down, spouses killed, the barrel of the gun directed at them point blank.
They fled for their lives, lost their families, survived, and life just went on.
Many Salvadorans fled the country altogether. Some ended up here in the northwest, where several parishes participated in the sanctuary movement, offering shelter to refugees fleeing conflicts in Central America.
The University Baptist Church joined the movement in 1982 as the first publicly declared sanctuary in the Northwest. Throughout the war, the church housed around 50 Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.
“They were in fear of their lives and to give them a better life was something we could play a part in,” says Margie Paynton, the church’s Minister of Music. “They wanted to tell their story, we wanted to listen.”
On my last day in San Salvador, we visited the Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad [Monument to Memory and Truth], a sprawling black granite memorial in Cuscatlan Park that lists only a quarter of the names of the thousands of men, women, and children killed or disappeared during the war.
The park is peaceful, illuminated by lush green trees as couples enjoy a picnic on the grass and children play with their toys. Yet, within it all stands the memorial, a solemn reminder of a past history shrouded by destruction and horror.
The memorial has so many names: Elias and Rutilio and Miguel and Jose and Edith and Blanca and Ester. An endless list of people who all had stories, who all had ears and eyes and hopes and dreams. They all deserved life and yet it was taken from them by their own army, their own people. Their stories were cut short and now all that remains are the names, so many names.
It is impossible to fully describe my experience in El Salvador. On one hand, it was terrible: we heard testimonies that I still can’t comprehend; stories of the terrible hate and ignorance that people can inflict on other human beings. But we also played soccer with children on a makeshift dirt field, laughed and swapped stories with survivors, felt the wind in our faces while zooming through the countryside in the back of a pick-up truck. We heard stories radiating hope and strength amidst unthinkable evil. We witnessed the worst and best of humanity.
If you believe you or someone you know was illegally adopted from El Salvador, contact Asociación Pro-Búsqueda.