By: Lindsay Boyle
Maria Cristina Alvarenga was just one year old when El Salvador’s civil war — a 12-year ordeal — came to a close in 1992. Today, Alvarenga, who grew up in the Comunidad Oscar Arnulfo Romero orphanage, said she would know very little about the war — even though it is essentially the reason she was in an orphanage in the first place — if not for a single novel that was assigned in her high school social studies class, which primarily covered one massacre that occurred in El Mozote.
Although some organizations — such as Amnesty International — have suggested that the El Salvadoran government is not doing enough to take responsibility for or inform citizens about what happened during the war, others believe that, right now, it is more important for the government to focus on moving forward and dealing with current issues.
In 1980, the Salvadoran Civil War began primarily as a result of land disputes and widespread poverty. Early in the war, the United States opted to intervene on the side of what was, at the time, a military dictatorship, rather than on the side of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front — a coalition of left-wing guerilla groups.
Armed with funding and training from the United States, the governmental military proceeded to commit massacres throughout the country. By the time the war ended, an estimated 70,000- 80,000 people had lost their lives.
Additionally, more than 800 children went missing throughout the course of the war. Often, Salvadoran soldiers essentially kidnapped those children, regardless of whether the children’s family members were still alive.
Some children were used as soldiers. Some ended up in Salvadoran orphanages under fake names. Others were sold into an illegitimate international adoption market for large sums of money. More than half of the children, many of whom would now be approaching 30 years of age, are still missing.
U.S.-born Victoria Cavanaugh, who started a nonprofit called Nuestro Ahora in El Salvador in 2006, explained that, although she thinks the United States should help find the children because “humanity has an obligation to help other people,” the missing children situation is not the primary issue in El Salvador for multiple reasons.
For one, she explained that many of the children lost during the war spent their entire childhoods in orphanages hoping to find their parents, but found little or no information. Because of that, she said some of them have stopped searching altogether.
She pointed out that those children, now adults, have started their own lives — different lives — and, if they live in the United States, have to consider whether they would leave the United States and potentially risk losing immigration status to find their real families.
“A lot of people have put it behind them,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m sure there’s always a hope to find your parents, but it’s a lot of history to dig up.”
Additionally, Cavanaugh cited two occurrences as more pressing issues in El Salvador: problems with gang violence, and problems with attempted emigration to the United States. According to the CIA World Factbook, El Salvador has a net migration loss of 8.78 per 1,000 people so far in 2012, which ranks as the 206th worst rate of the 221 included countries.
“I think, due to all the current other crises that are happening here, (the missing children issue is) just not at the top of the list,” she said.
Each year, Cavanaugh’s organization, Nuestro Ahora, provides scholarships, stipends and housing to about 10 18-- 25-year-old students coming from multiple orphanages. Unlike in the United States, most children in Salvadoran orphanages do have at least one parent. However, those parents were deemed unable to take care of them because, for example, they could not afford to feed their children, or lived too far away to send their children to school.
|Orphans at Hogar de las Hermanas Inmaculado Corazon, Izalco, Sonsonate -- |
one of the orphanages Nuestro Ahora works with. (Courtesy of Nuestro Ahora.)
One of the older students, 25-year-old Maria Magdalena Lopez, said that, despite having few personal memories of the war, she has worked extra hard to learn about the war from classmates, companions and their parents.
She agreed that other issues have come to the forefront in El Salvador.
“The people in the city have tried to put the war behind them,” she said. “They’re not trying to forget — it’s more like they’ve put it to one side, because they now have to focus on their current problems in the country.”
Lopez acknowledged that those problems are largely related to the war, but said that, now, “people don’t necessarily see it as consequences of the war.”
When she first started working with students through Nuestro Ahora, Cavanaugh said she found it “striking” how little they knew about the war and the missing children, despite typically having grown up around several people affected by both.
Cavanaugh pointed to the government as a big reason people have stopped discussing the events of the war. She said that education in El Salvador is “totally, a thousand percent” biased, and that media are “very controlled” and typically portray everything in a positive way.
“There’s very little emphasis on thinking critically, so it’s no wonder that there’s not more insistence by Salvadorans themselves as to what’s going on,” she said. “They don’t have the sense that’s it their right to demand the answers from their government.”
One of the Nuestro Ahora students, 19-year-old Maria Cristina Alvarenga, spent her childhood in an orphanage because, after the war, her parents were not able to send her to school.
She said she thinks that more should be said about the war because she knows that many people have been affected by it — not only the children who went missing and their families, but also veterans who, today, do not receive any benefits from the government. Alvarenga even has a friend who lost both of her parents in the war, and whose brother was whisked away. His whereabouts are still unknown.
“I think, obviously, the war has traumatized lots and lots of people,” Alvarenga said. “The government, the population in general, they are forgetting about it, and that’s a problem.”
Scholars in Nuestro Ahora's University Program. (Courtesy by Nuestro Ahora.)
One nonprofit organization that has not forgotten about the effects of the civil war is the Pro Búsqueda Association for the Search of Disappeared Children, which was founded in 1994 and continues to actively search for persons who went missing during the Salvadoran Civil War.
A source familiar with Pro Búsqueda said the United States has the ability to improve the current situation in El Salvador in multiple ways, including by monitoring the Salvadoran government.
In addition to allegedly providing biased education and regulating media, the Salvadoran government has also largely ignored orders from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that were meant to address human rights violations committed during the war, according to the source.
However, in January 2012, current Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes publicly apologized for the massacre at El Mozote, fulfilling another one of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ orders. He said that true peace will not come until justice is served and made several promises, including declaring El Mozote a cultural center, providing computers to the area’s local school, and asking the Attorney General to ensure that Salvadoran laws allow for the prosecution of those who committed human rights violations during the war.
Only time will tell if the Salvadoran government makes good on those promises, but without a knowledgeable, pressing public, one cannot be sure how long that may take.