Three decades on, the search continues for El Salvador’s stolen children

It is 30 years since sisters Ernestina, 7, and Erlinda, 3, were stolen from their family by soldiers and to this day their whereabouts remain unknown.It was the height of the bloody conflict in El Salvador and members of the US-trained Atlactl army battalion had commenced ‘Operation Clean Up’.The scorched-earth campaign saw soldiers killing anyone and anything they came across, burning houses and razing crops.Like many others, the Serrano Cruz family fled for their lives, and were split up amid the chaos and panic. After three days without anything to eat or drink, Dionisio Serrano was desperate to keep his children alive. He left Ernestina and Erlinda while he searched for water. Their older sister, Suyapa, hid in the bushes a short distance from the little girls, afraid that her six-month-old baby’s crying would endanger them by revealing their whereabouts. Terrified, Suyapa heard a soldier approach her sisters’ hiding place, and ask another soldier whether or not to kill the two little girls.  “Take them with us,” she heard the second soldier reply. And with that, Ernestina and Erlinda were taken from their family.For 30 years, the Serrano Cruz family have tirelessly searched for Ernestina and Erlinda. The anguish caused by their kidnapping and disappearance has never abated. After the war, shamefully, the Salvadoran courts questioned whether the girls had even existed. But the family did not let this deter them. They continued to demand the state find Ernestina and Erlinda, taking their battle to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights when their government failed to take action. Ester Alvarenga, Director of Asociación Pro-Búsqueda which works to reunite abducted children with their parents, told Amnesty International: “I admire the bravery of Suyapa Serrano Cruz, who has remained determined from the beginning to find out what happened to her little sisters.“I will also always remember [their mother] Victoria Serrano Cruz, for her struggle for justice and the truth in this case and on behalf of other families of disappeared children.” Suyapa fills with pride when she recalls her mother’s, strength and dignity.  Sadly, Victoria passed away in 2003 and never fulfilled her biggest dream: to one day hold her daughters again. As Suyapa explains: “This 2 June is such a tough and difficult day for us, not knowing where our sisters are.”We still live that day 30 years ago over and over again, not knowing where they are, they are difficult memories… Our mother is no longer with us, nor our father, but we siblings are still here, and we carry on searching for our sisters.” In 2005 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision – it demanded the Salvadoran state find Ernestina and Erlinda.It also called for the creation of an independent search commission to find the hundreds of other disappeared children taken during the conflict.  In January 2010, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes recognised his state’s responsibility for the violations which victims and their relatives had suffered.  He also issued a decree setting up a National Search Commission with a two-year mandate to search for girls and boys disappeared during the armed conflict in El Salvador.  But these initial signs of progress have been confounded by a lack of urgency to comply fully with the 2005 court ruling.  How many more parents must die before they know the fate of their stolen children?When Suyapa speaks of her family’s distress at not knowing what happened to her sisters, she is always quick to acknowledge similar suffering and frustration faced by many other families looking for children stolen from them during the conflict. “So many families are living anguished lives, not knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones: it is such a terrible sorrow for us to bear.”  One of the cruel tactics employed by the military during the conflict was to portray parents living in opposition strongholds as people who had deserted their children.Pictures of young boys and girls appeared in contemporary newspaper reports, frequently accompanied by the caption “abandoned children”. Military personnel implicated in taking children were often portrayed as their “saviours”.  Some of the children ended up in adoption in El Salvador, as well as other countries including the USA, Spain, Italy, France and the UK.Three decades have now gone by since children such as Ernestina and Erlinda were taken.With the passing of another year, the sisters, wherever they are, remain unaware of how much their family loves them, and how sorely their absence is felt. Parents, sisters, brothers, around the world should stand up and join the Serrano Cruz family in demanding that the Salvadoran authorities finally take action to find Ernestina and Erlinda – along with all of the other disappeared children whose families continue to search and hope.

View a slideshow featuring the work of Salvadoran NGO Asociación Pro-Búsqueda to reunite abducted children with their parents: