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Suzanne Berghaus sees her birth parents for the first time in 24 years. Her mother embraces her.
Suzanne Berghaus sees her birth parents for the first time in 24 years. Her mother embraces her. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)

War child who 'disappeared' finds her way back

Mass. woman sees El Salvador family

CACAOPERA, El Salvador -- The house was decorated with ribbons and balloons as Suzanne Berghaus walked toward it. The 26-year-old social worker from Wilmington, Mass., would later recall how beautiful the place looked with its colorful bunting and hand-lettered sign welcoming her home. "Te Queremos Mucho," the sign read. We love you very much.

Valentín Argueta greeted her at the front gate. It was the first time he'd laid eyes on his youngest child in 24 years, since her kidnapping by government soldiers during El Salvador's long and bloody civil war.

In Spanish, a language mostly foreign to Berghaus, he asked his daughter for her forgiveness. Moments later she was embraced by her birth mother, María Venancia Sáenz , who would describe the day as the best gift she'd ever received. "A gift from God," the mother said, squeezing Berghaus's arm. The fulfillment of a hope kept alive through years of grieving and uncertainty.

Tuesday's emotionally charged reunion, occurring in a small town near the Honduran border, was more than a private homecoming. It was one of hundreds of such reunions that have taken place in El Salvador over the past decade, aided by advances in DNA matching and an intensifying campaign to bring closure to victimized families, if not justice to those who violated them long ago.

On hand to record the event was a small media contingent invited by Pro-Búsqueda , the Salvadoran organization responsible for tracking down and verifying Berghaus's birth parents. Also present were several other key players, including lead investigator Hector Berrios ; Stefan Schmitt , director of the Physicians for Human Rights forensics program, through which a DNA match was made between Berghaus and her biological parents; and Robert McAndrews , a Salem State College professor who first brought Berghaus to El Salvador last year. McAndrews was taking students on a school-sponsored trip, and Berghaus, one of his students, asked to go at the last minute, hoping to begin the search for her roots -- a search that climaxed here this week.

Asked how she felt about finding her biological family, she said: "They're really good. There's so much family out there to get to know. I didn't know if it would ever happen." Then she began to cry.

In the months following her trip with McAndrews, Berghaus learned from Pro-Búsqueda that her parents probably were alive and that four older siblings had moved to the United States: two sisters in California and a brother and sister in New Jersey, all of whom she visited this past winter. On Tuesday, three more siblings plus many nephews, nieces, and cousins greeted Berghaus with hugs and curious smiles. They laughed and wept as efforts to bridge gaps created over the past quarter century -- cultural, linguistic, familial -- were made, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes with great tenderness.

In the shade of the porch, Schmitt remarked that for someone accustomed to working with corpses, it was deeply moving to witness a moment like this. McAndrews, saying he could never have imagined such a scene a year ago, called it "symbolic of everything that's happened to this country and its people." Others simply seemed overwhelmed by the reunion and the journey to it.

"How did you find us?" asked her sister Camilla as family members met in private for the first time.

"It's a long story," replied Berghaus, dabbing tears from her cheeks but smiling at the question.

An emotional journey
Tuesday's trip to Cacaopera, four hours by car from the capital city of San Salvador, wasn't the only emotional ride Berghaus went on this week. Adopted at age 2 1/2 from a Salvadoran orphanage by a Massachusetts couple in 1983, she said in an interview last week that she knew from age 7 that she'd been born in El Salvador and christened María Lorena Sáenz on Dec. 10, 1980. Only recently, however, had she felt compelled to find her birth family -- and the truth, however painful, behind why she'd left the country. Her adoption occurred early in a 12-year war that claimed 75,000 lives and displaced thousands of children who Salvadoran officials claimed were either orphaned or abandoned but who were really kidnapped from their families.

For years "I was afraid to ask too much," Berghaus acknowledged, sitting in a cafe near her workplace at the Somerville Council on Aging. "But as the search has gone on, I've wanted to know more. I may never know the whole story, though, because different people have different versions of what happened."

Her adoptive parents, with whom she lives, fully supported her search, Berghaus said, but would not accompany her to El Salvador or speak publicly about her case.

During a meeting Monday at Pro-Búsqueda headquarters in San Salvador, Berghaus finally learned the details of her abduction at age 14 months, in a harrowing narrative reminiscent of the novel "Sophie's Choice."

First, Berrios described the investigatory process, including field interviews, a search for birth documents, and the lab match in January of DNA samples from Berghaus and her parents. Hers was "an amazing case," Berrios went on, beginning with the fact that Berghaus knew her birth mother's name and hometown from adoption papers she'd carried with her out of El Salvador as a child. More amazingly, he said, his initial meeting with Berghaus, in March 2006, took place at the church where human-rights hero Archbishop Óscar Romero was buried and the late Jon Cortina, a Jesuit priest and Pro-Búsqueda co founder, was being celebrated that day in a memorial Mass.

"Padre Jon is looking over you," Berrios said Monday as Berghaus cried softly in the hushed conference room.

Berrios then recalled his first meeting with María Venancia Sáenz and her face when she heard about Berghaus's quest. More details emerged: her parents and their eight children living in constant fear of armed patrols in the area; how they fled from town to town, sleeping on the floor at night to avoid bullets screaming through the windows; and how, in the village of Osicala , a column of soldiers rode into town one day and burst into their makeshift home carrying two kidnapped children.

Did Berghaus wish him to go on, Berrios asked. Yes, she nodded after taking a moment to compose herself.

He continued. When the lieutenant in charge saw the baby lying in a hammock, Berrios said, he remarked on how beautiful the girl was and suggested he might take her away. But you cannot do that, the mother told the officer, turning her back at the very moment he reached down and seized the child. The house was thick with soldiers inside and out, Berrios recalled from his interviews. Valentín started to intervene but stopped, fearing he was risking the lives of his seven other children. So the baby was carried off. Berghaus's kidnapping, he said, probably had spared the others.

Later in the meeting it was Berghaus's turn to ask questions. There was a whole year in her life, she said, that she was unsure about, from her kidnapping to her arrival in America in August 1983. Pro-Búsqueda director Mário Sanchez did his best to fill in that missing piece. He described the network of doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and other officials who facilitated, and probably profited from, the orphanage pipeline that operated during the war years, which ended in 1992. In all probability, Berghaus had wound up in a "fattening house," where young children were housed, fed, and medically cared for prior to adoption. Still, no one knew for certain where she'd been taken -- only that her being here now was a symbol of hope to hundreds more like her who had been taken during the war.

DNA database aids search
To date, Pro-Búsqueda has opened 787 cases on "disappeared" children, many adopted by American families during the war years, when more than 2,300 adoption visas for Salvadoran children were approved by the US Embassy. Using a DNA database, more than 320 families of missing children have been located, according to Sanchez, despite a frustrating lack of support on the government's part. In some cases, the parents have initiated the search; in other cases, the children have.

"The state still denies the forced disappearance of children," he said, "because the people responsible continue to have political and economic power." Even with passage of a general amnesty law, he said, "if the state were to accept responsibility, this power structure would be in crisis."

Families who adopted these children are victims, too, added Sanchez, because they acted in good faith and for the noblest of reasons, not knowing so many parents had been left to grieve the way Valentín Argueta and María Venancia Sáenz had.

For Berghaus, there has been no legal or political closure. Yet something more important may have transpired. She'd enjoyed the first of what she hopes will be many visits with her birth family. And she went out of her way to praise her adoptive parents in front of relatives and reporters, calling them "loving and caring people" who'd brought her this far in life.

Throughout Tuesday's reunion, Berghaus was observed to say little while a Pro-Búsqueda staff member translated for her. She did say she was happy to be there and saw many resemblances between herself and family members. The next step, she said, would be spending time together and "telling about each other's lives and all the history. Everything kind of fits."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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