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Maria reuniting with Herminia and Serapio after their disappearance three decades before
Maria reuniting with Herminia and Serapio after their disappearance three decades before | Photo Courtesy of Private files of Pro Búsqueda

Mother reunites with two of three missing children after forced disappearance in El Salvador

As I ran with my four-year-old daughter Herminia, they pulled her by the hair and captured her. Like many mothers, I witnessed my children being taken away by the military. They captured around 10 children that day and the anxiety of my search for them began.

Maria Maura
Interview Subject
María Maura Contreras, 68, is a very strong mother who has managed to overcome the obstacles life presented her. She experienced the persecution and forced disappearance of her children in the 1980s during the Salvadoran Civil War. After continuing to search for her children, despite the fear that they may have been murdered, she reunited with two of them years later.
Background Information
The Association for the Search for Disappeared Children (Probúsqueda) was founded in 1994 in the capital city of San Salvador by the priest Jon Cortina and human rights investigators Ralph Sprenkels, Mirna Perla, and Dorothee Molders. The organization began with the sole objective of rediscovering all the boys and girls who disappeared during the armed conflict in El Salvador.

To date, 443 cases have been resolved and 287 family reunions have been facilitated, according to statistics from the official website. They have a personal DNA bank that helps these reunions. Like Maria Maura Contreras, many mothers thank and fondly remember Father Jon Cortina whom they consider a “real man,” alluding to the fact that he always sought the well-being of those most in need, and his commitment to truth and justice in all cases of disappearance.

SAN VICENTE, El Salvador — On August 25, 1982, at around 8:30 a.m., my life changed forever. Military operations during the Salvadoran Civil War resulting in the kidnapping and forced disappearance of many individuals and children. Then, suddenly, they struck my family.

When the armed forces surrounded us out of nowhere in the small town of San Juan Buena Vista in Tecoluca, we ran. Every day, we avoided the torment of forced disappearances wreaking havoc in our home. Ours days felt numbered.

On this particular day, my children did not escape. My babies – between the ages of four months and four years old – were ripped away from me. Twenty-four years later, I reunited with one daughter; and 30 years later I finally saw my son again. My daughter Inés remains missing.

Her children, as young as four months old, torn from her arms

On that fateful Wednesday morning in 1982, the Armed Forces surrounded my family out of nowhere. I had my three children with me – Herminia, Cristian, and Inés. As I tried to flee, I accidentally dropped my daughter Inés, only four months old at the time. I knew, in that very moment, the Armed Forces already had their hands on Cristian and Inés.

As I ran with my four-year-old daughter Herminia, they pulled her by the hair and captured her. Like many mothers, I witnessed my children being taken away by the military. They captured around 10 children that day and the anxiety of my search for them began.

I knew what happened to hostage children. The soldiers of the Fifth Brigade assassinated them in some other place. I believed they would not last even a day. I found out later, my children remained at a military post in the canton (small region) known as Río Frío.

My husband and I went there, taking what was necessary to bury them. When we arrived, it appeared to be a false alarm. The children were not there. Time went on, but I never stopped searching for my kids.

I visited the Red Cross in San Vicente. The receptionist there asked me, “Why are you looking for them?” without giving me more information. I searched the media to find their whereabouts, but nothing came to fruition. I never stopped looking and maintained faith I would see my children again.

Mother reunited with two children 24 and 30 years later

On December 12, 2006, twenty-four years later, I received a call. They found my daughter Herminia in Guatemala. The help of Pro-Búsqueda made this dream possible. We went to a private university to meet her. I felt nervous and on edge. The question, “What had happened with my daughter?” haunted my thoughts.

When we met, the cold reunion seemed far from the reality I expected. She asked that the media and press not attend. After the meeting, we spent the night in a hotel, and the confrontation began. At no time did she address me as mom, although I called her daughter. To her, I was just another woman, no more. That night I told her, “If you do not want to see me again after tonight, I understand, but I will always be here.” The next day, she returned to Guatemala.

reunion after enforced disappearance
Maria embracing Serapio Cristian at their reunion | Photo Courtesy of Private files of Pro Búsqueda

Six years later, I received a call and another visit. In 2012, I reunited with my son Serapio Cristian, now a grown man. This time, I did not leave my home. In my canton of Las Anonas, in San Nicolás Lempa, I brought together all who knew him. I invited my daughter as well.

It filled me with great happiness when my son wrapped me in a big hug and called me mom. Happiness flooded my body and I smiled. I could not believe I could be so lucky to see my children again. Cristian lived with me for a while, before continuing on with his life.

Mother pleads with families in other countries to see her one missing daughter again

At 68 years old, I plead with God to see my remaining daughter Inés again. I still remember her as a tiny baby, wearing the last dress I ever saw her in, that day in August. I can’t imagine her any older. I feel happy so happy that I found at least two of my three children, but I miss Inés.

Father Jon Cortina (who founded Pro-Búsqueda, an organization that searches for children who went missing in the Salvadoran Civil War) said, “When families who are lost from one another due to war, embrace each other, recognize each other, and break from the anguish of being missing, we find the meaning in our mission. We do not intend for a reunited person to stay with his or her biological family. We want them to know their own identity, to rediscover history.”

This difficult fight goes on. I do not feel tired; I simply ask for truth. Many mothers may never see their children again, but I hope they do not give up searching or demanding justice in these cases. I ask that if any family has my daughter Inés, in any part of the world, please get in touch with me. This story goes beyond the borders of my country. I want to see my daughter again.

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Vladimir A. Zaldaña is a Salvadoran communicator, journalist, and multimedia producer. He graduated from the Social Communication program at José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA). He has served as a producer, announcer, and radio advisor at a national and regional level. He also served as a multimedia producer, digital journalist, and trainer. In his work, he has experienced a closeness with people and the reality of the country, allowing him to learn stories that give voice to those who have no voice.