Searching For El Salvador's Disappeared Children

During the country's civil war in the 1980s, countless children were abducted and sold off into adoption. Some in Europe are now joining the hunt to know their origins.

Children who disappeared during the war, where are you?
Children who disappeared during the war, where are you?
Tobias Käufer

SAN SALVADOR — In the offices of the human rights organization Pro Búsqueda, there are grey filing cabinets crammed with records detailing the fates of hundreds of missing Salvadoran children, dating mostly from the gruesome years of the country’s civil war — 1980 to 1991.

“We’ve collected all the information, including witness statements, in this archive,” says Mirla Carbajal, director of Pro Búsqueda, which is investigating dubious “adoptions” during that period.

During those 11 years, thousands of children disappeared from El Salvador. Carbajal and her colleagues believe some of them now live in Germany and that they have no idea of their early background. Pro Búsqueda is actively looking for these children.

Over Carbajal’s desk in her office in El Salvador’s capital hangs a black and white poster depicting a soldier. In his left hand he carries a weapon, and in his right arm he is carrying off a crying child. “Where are the children who disappeared?” the poster reads in white letters underneath the photograph.

“The picture describes our work,” says Carbajal, who says many children were violently removed from their parents — who sometimes were killed — by soldiers during the war. More than 2,000 adoption visas were issued to Europeans alone during the war years. This is an above average number that Carbajal explains this way: “It’s always when a society is particularly vulnerable that child traffickers come in from abroad to try their luck. And of course couples desperate for a baby are prepared to pay any price, particularly when the adoption procedure can be organized faster, more easily and less bureaucratically.”

Disaster breeds exploitation

In Haiti after the earthquake, in Thailand after the tsunami, or in El Salvador during the civil war, the usual government control mechanisms were not functioning. Often, the police, justice officials and state prosecution are affected by the crisis as much as everyone else and can’t perform their typical duties. That’s when child traffickers from rich countries move in.

Handwritten labels on the drawers in the Pro Búsqueda offices are organized by year, starting in 1980. That was the year of the fatal attack on Archbishop Óscar Romero, when the bloody conflict began. Romero condemned all violence and called for the parties to talk to one another. Today, the “Bishop of the Poor” is considered a saint not only in El Salvador but in all of Latin America, although the Church has been dragging its feet in making that official. Pope Francis apparently intends to change that.

For 11 long years, left-wing guerilla groups and the military junta’s right-wing death squads brutally fought. The war, during which 90,000 people were killed, finally ended with a peace agreement. The military killed randomly — people they suspected of being guerilleros were mowed down. The guerillas took their revenge by executing mayors they suspected of cooperating with the death squads. The present-day governing FMLN party is an outgrowth of the guerilla movement.

Their top candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections is former guerilla commander and current Vice President Salvador Oscar Sánchez Cerén, who publicly asked the El Salvador people for forgiveness for his part in the bloody civil war.

But the right-wing conservative Arena party has taken a less direct approach. High-level functionaries are said to have ordered Archbishop Romero’s death. But rather than working through the issue, their approach is to let sleeping dogs lie and not re-open old wounds.

In her work, Mirla Carbajal does exactly the opposite. She digs up the past, brings forgotten acts out into the light. Perhaps for that reason she gets no financial support from the state. And researching the thousands of unsolved cases is dangerous for the volunteers. In November, some unwelcome some nocturnal visitors broke into the Pro Búsqueda offices and tried to destroy part of the archive and thus annihilate compromising documents.

“Our documents have explosive power, and a lot of people are scared that our results will become public,” Carbajal says. There is currently debate in the country as to whether to repeal amnesty laws. The military in particular is fearful that their involvement in the era’s dirty deals could land them in court.

Reuniting families

Pro Búsqueda has already solved 300 cases, the last one a few weeks ago when Xiomara Osorio, whose name is now Carolina Cárcamo, was reunited with her biological mother and siblings after 29 years.

These are stirring, emotional and teary moments. “Most of the children are told that their parents and families abandoned them, or that their relatives are dead, so that they don’t follow up their history,” Carbajal says.

This week, Pro Búsqueda is getting some German visitors, a parliamentary delegation that wants more information about the organization’s work. Carbajal intends to put the evidence she has before them and ask for their help.

“We are certain that there are children from El Salvador in Germany,” she says. “All indications lead to that conclusion. But without information from Germany we can’t proceed.”

She is going to ask for her organization’s work to be made known in Germany so that kids concerned may even contact them themselves. “They have a fundamental right to know their stories.”

Pro Búsqueda doesn’t intend to split up happy families in Germany. “The kids concerned are around 30 years old today. They may be married and have children of their own. The point of what we’re doing is to achieve clarity about what happened here in El Salvador. For the relatives concerned here in El Salvador, it would be the end of a nightmare to learn that their abducted child is alive and well in Germany.”

In Switzerland, four children who were abducted and whose origins have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt have been found. One of them is Manuel, who took 11 years to accept the fact that he came from El Salvador.

He then traveled to Central America and visited his family. After initial reserve on the part of all concerned, he and his biological family formed deep relationships, and the young man today has two families. Pro Búsqueda reports similar cases in Spain, Holland, France and Belgium.

“We have a DNA data bank that can reliably establish who the biological parents are,” Carbajal explains. But for it to work the group needs both data and permission from the kids concerned. “Get in touch with us,” Carbajal pleads. “Help us and yourself know your real story.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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