As she walks up a street in El Salvador, a woman squints in the sunlight and holds up a sign with the words: Nunca nos cansamos de buscarte — We never get tired of looking for you.
She and hundreds of others have been searching for children who were taken away during the civil war that racked El Salvador from 1980 to 1992. They’ve been looking for 35 years, and they don’t plan on giving up.
“I always hold onto the hope of meeting my son or daughter someday,” said Milagro de Pilar Martínez in a video created by students at the University of Washington (UW). “Even if it’s during the last moments of my life, I would love them with all my heart.”
At the behest of the Salvadoran human rights organization Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, a group of 10 undergraduate students in the UW international studies program are aiding in the search.
Over winter quarter, the students did extensive research into two of many civil-war era massacres — Las Canoas and La Quesera — then traveled to El Salvador to interview seven survivors. The result was two videos, meant to spread the word of the survivors’ ongoing search, and an in-depth report on the previously undocumented massacres.
“These videos could form a link in the chain for at least one more family to find a lost child,” said Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, director of UW’s Center for Human Rights.
Created as part of the center’s Unfinished Sentences project to address human rights violations in El Salvador, the students presented their work to foreign policy experts in March, including the ambassador of El Salvador to the U.S., Francisco Altschul.
An estimated 75,000 civilians died during the war between leftist rebels and government forces. Largely funded and trained by the U.S., armed state battalions conducted scorched-earth massacres, wiping out entire villages.
Thousands of children were forcibly disappeared, many of whom were put up for adoption under the guise of orphanhood to unknowing families abroad. Nearly 2,500 kids from El Salvador were adopted into the U.S. during the war. Their identities were often changed, and it is believed that many lost children, now adults, are unaware of their origins and of the families still searching for them.
Pro-Búsqueda, in El Salvador, has done tireless investigative work to reunite families — more than 200 since 1994. Founded by survivors, it had received nearly 1,000 missing children reports as of March. Last year, members reached out to UW’s Center for Human Rights to help spread the word in the U.S.
“This isn’t work that is by any means dead or part of the past,” said Shanna Larson, a UW senior who worked on the videos. “These are current and present things. To many of these survivors, justice means being reconnected with their loved ones or finding out exactly what happened to them.”
Though the primary goal is to find missing children, Godoy and the students say their work is part of a larger effort to aid in a healing process that never took place. For a country ravaged by death and destruction for so many years, a majority of the human rights violations that occurred were never acknowledged or documented. An amnesty law passed in 1993 effectively shielded the perpetrators.
“In the wake of widespread atrocities, it is not possible or advantageous to impose silence or sweep things under the rug,” Godoy said. “The only way to address them and move on is through a process of truth, justice and reparations that can bring healing. That never happened in El Salvador.”
The students’ report is the first attempt to fully document the 1980 Canoas massacre, in which 23 people were killed and two children disappeared, as well as the 1981 Quesera massacre, in which 350 to 500 civilians were killed and 24 children disappeared.
Emma Mahboub, a student on the research team, said it was difficult to dig up info on what took place.
“It wasn’t like we were comparing scholarly opinions about an event,” she said. “We were literally trying to locate facts. A huge motivator for me was the fact that these massacres hadn’t been acknowledged publicly, so to be able to shed light on this issue was driving me from day one.”
When the students finally went to El Salvador and began putting faces to their research, they were struck by the strength and persistence of the survivors.
“The resilience of the human spirit was so evident in these people, and it was humbling to be able to meet them,” Mahboub said. “The fact that they continue to live their lives and continue to look for their children without falter is just amazing.”
Students said they tried to honor that strength in the videos. The first begins with their introductions: “Mi nombre es Salvador García, y busco Cristabel García Esquivel,” — “My name is Salvador García, and I am searching for Cristabel García Esquivel.”
Godoy said she believes the students’ work should also send a message here at home: History is something to be learned from. The U.S. provided $4 billion in aid to the El Salvador government during the war and had a heavy hand in training the forces that committed some of the worst atrocities.
At the time, the massacres were framed as victories over terrorists, and the U.S. downplayed human rights violations so it could continue providing aid against leftist rebels.
“What I really hope is that people who learn of these terrible acts of war and the devastating human consequences will be more critical in thinking about contemporary wars and the consequences we don’t hear about in the news right now,” Godoy said.
And amid thousands of social media posts streaming through Facebook timelines and Twitter feeds, sharing these videos is an easy way to make a difference, she added.
“This is one case where there really is a goal. Watch it, share it. And in sharing it, you can be part of the solution.”
Help reunite more families. If you have information about cases of wartime disappearances in El Salvador or have doubts about your identity, visit: www.probusqueda.org.sv or write firstname.lastname@example.org