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Guatemalans search for vanished children

Special to National Catholic Reporter
Santa Anita Las Canoas, Guatemala

Twenty years ago something in Luis Curruchich died. Soldiers took away his 3-year old daughter, Aura Marina, and he has not seen her since. He remembers her disappearance clearly.

“Whenever the army entered like that, we knew they just killed. So we ran, children and old people too. We didn’t wait,” Curruchich said. He was sitting in his two-room house with walls of mud brick and a dirt floor. Outside, begonias and geraniums bloomed in milk cans.

Twenty years ago, this village, like hundreds of other Maya Indian settlements, was considered “subversive” by a brutal army in the country’s civil war. Soldiers came, firing machine guns and lobbing grenades. In the chaos, Curruchich and others hurled themselves into a shallow ravine.

There was nothing he could do, Curruchich wants the visitor to know, to help Aura Marina and his other daughter, Amelia, 5. Both were taken that day. Later, Curruchich’s mother found Amalia and brought her home.

Their infant girl, still unnamed, disappeared too, although no one saw her carried off. “We found nothing, not even her bones,” Curruchich said. His wife, Maria Transito, 25, is buried in a mass grave, still visible on the edge of the village, with 13 others who died that day.

For the next two years Curruchich’s mother, also named Maria, doggedly combed orphanages in the capital and other places she had heard captured children were kept, until she recovered Amalia and two other grandchildren, daughters of another son. Acquaintances told the family they had recognized the toddler Aura Marina at the municipal building in San Martin Jilotepeque, where a local woman appeared to have taken her away “in adoption,” but the trail was lost.

Branded as an outlaw

Meanwhile Curruchich, suddenly without family, branded as an outlaw with thousands of other highland residents enrolled in self-help peasant leagues, fled to join leftist guerrilla combatants. Only in recent weeks, said Curruchich, has he dared to believe he might see his daughter -- she would be 23 now -- once more.

A new report by the Roman Catholic church’s Human Rights Office blames the army for the disappearance of hundreds of children like Aura Marina. Authors said the missing are likely to be alive, in Guatemala or adopted into families abroad, including the United States. Reunions are possible, the report said. It is titled “Until I Find You.”

In a recent afternoon of talking, Curruchich wavered between the old resignation that he would never again see Aura Marina and a new feeling of hope.

A team of social workers and psychologists closely examined a sample of 86 cases in a study. It is purposely being conducted in a low-profile way so that the team will not be “overwhelmed” by relatives searching for the missing. The number of vanished children is at least in the hundreds and may be in the thousands, the study and other sources say.

The report, supported by the Swiss nongovernmental children’s welfare foundation, Stifting Kinderdortft Pestalozzy, says most disappearances were at the hands of the military who sometimes gave the infants to soldiers and officers who wanted to increase their family size. Other children were placed in orphanages or trafficked in international adoptions. In some instances -- the report illustrates one -- children were used as bait, their photos distributed on fliers to entice families suspected of supporting guerrillas to surrender themselves to army garrisons.

Sometimes infants, swinging peacefully in hammocks attached to tree branches, were abandoned in confusion as families fled, or very small children were left hidden as fleeing parents foraged for food. When the adults returned, the children were gone. In fewer cases, guerrillas took adolescent boys to join their ranks.

The study includes seven cases in which children were reunited with parents or other living relatives. In one case, a young woman was found studying medicine as an American citizen. In others, Guatemalans were living far from their home villages.

Calling for a commission

The church report calls on the government of President Alfonso Portillo to establish a high-level commission with access to state archives, including records of the army, which maintains overweening power.

Portillo attended the presentation of the report in the national cathedral, but neither the government nor the army has issued a response.

“We hope all this work is not for nothing, but want to see what interest the government has,” said Curruchich carefully, his eyes resting on a copy of the report. “The government is civilian but it’s directed by military and ex-military with the same mentality as before.”

Portillo’s government includes several persons who served as ranking officials during the conflict, including former dictator Efraín Rios Montt, now president of the congress. “It’s risky, a report like this,” admitted Roberto Cabrera, administrative director of the rights office. Cabrera was a member of the team that worked four years on the monumental church study “Never Again.” That study catalogued hundreds of massacres and other violence in which some 200,000 died, mostly unarmed Maya Indians in the army’s scorched earth campaign. Within 48 hours of its ceremonial presentation two years ago, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera, then head of the rights office, which prepared the report, was found bludgeoned to death in a crime that remains unsolved.

Almost four years after a peace treaty was signed between guerrillas and government, an atmosphere of distrust persists. Relatives fear reprisals if they look for children.

In the rural Caqchiquel Maya settlement where Luis Curruchich lives, about 60 miles from the capital and an hour and a half from the nearest paved road, families may know each other’s histories intimately and even support a desire to search out lost children. But secrets are more guarded among the squatters who live in tin-roofed houses that cling precariously to the sides of the deep canyons that edge Guatemala City, where thousands fled from the violence.

His mother cries out

An outsider descending steep, winding stairways in a typical colony is met by small children who scatter in trepidation. Small grated peepholes in doors quickly open and shut. In one concrete block cubicle in a crowded colony called Santiago live a couple from the western province of La Union whose 9-month old son was left behind when the army attacked and adults scattered with all the children they could carry. “They won’t talk to outsiders because they are still afraid,” said 48-year old Diosio Martinez, who was a neighbor in the couple’s home village. “The boy would be 19 now, and sometimes at night you can hear the mother cry out for him.”

Obstacles are great. During the years when most disappeared, from 1979 to 1983, 438 Guatemalan “orphans” were adopted by U.S. citizens, according to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Others are believed to be living in France. “Empirical evidence shows various children who were not necessarily orphans left the country by means of adoptions,” said the report.

The search for the vanished children should be a government priority, Cabrera suggested, to help bring reconciliation to this country of 11.5 million after 36 years of war. Cabrera, who is a physician, said crippling feelings of guilt affect surviving relatives for “losing” children. In cases where they have been found, youth often cannot overcome a deep sense of having been “abandoned” by parents.

A U.N-sponsored Truth Commission called for a government-backed search for vanished children in its 1998 report, “Memory of Silence,” which named the government campaign against Maya civilians “genocide.”

Luis Curruchich recalls that the day after his daughters and nieces disappeared, the army “came down in a helicopter and took all the sewing machines, all the equipment they could move from the school, as if they wanted to erase the community.”

Curruchich calls that period before survivors scattered and families became separated the time when “we had our own names.”

Curruchich serves as a volunteer mental health “guardian,” attends workshops presented by a nongovernmental organization to prepare him for the informal discussions he holds with neighbors. He says self-examination revolves around whether villagers could have protected themselves. “Some say if we had more arms, we could have defended ourselves, but others say there would have been more deaths, because the army had helicopters, they had big weapons.”

Serious crimes

Beyond a healing sense of closure and reconciliation, the legal repercussions of the search for children are potentially enormous. The report’s authors argue that incidents of minors taken by the military or the guerrilla constitute “forced disappearances,” a serious crime under Guatemalan and international humanitarian law.

In a recent Argentinean case widely noted here, nine high-ranking Argentine officers including Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri who led a military junta during the country’s “dirty war,” have been jailed for baby-trafficking with children of parents assassinated or disappeared.

Such “forced disappearances” cannot be considered political crimes protected by amnesty even though they occurred during war, the authors of the report argue. They call for prosecution of perpetrators, including those involved in willfully illegal adoptions. Besides the church report, tracking the vanished children appears to be spreading as a strategy for other rights activists.

The Families of the Disappeared of Guatemala --FAMDEGUA -- which undertook exhumations at massacre sites in the 1990s and tenaciously sought out former soldiers to testify at trials, announced this month it will publish a book detailing cases of 12 children who survived massacres but disappeared.

The families “feel about their children the way I feel about my brother, that you see them through smoke, not knowing if they are dead or alive,” said Francisca Osorio, whose 22-year old brother, Pedro, disappeared in 1982 on a family visit after being stopped at a rural military roadblock. “To this day I sleep with the door open, in case he appeared and someone was chasing him, so he could enter quickly. You never forget.”

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2000