The Miami Herald
December 17, 2001

Stolen kids reunited with their families in Guatemala


 CHIMALTENANGO, Guatemala -- Aura Marina Curruchiche, a 22-year-old war orphan sporting the short hair and stylish dress of a city girl, awkwardly hugged a receiving line of Maya Indian relatives she had never met.

 Her father came first. Then a sobbing grandmother who clutched her and wouldn't let go. Next came a young woman with a shiny black ponytail, long traditional skirt and a face just like Aura's.

 ``This,'' an aunt said excitedly, ``this is your sister!''

 Tears poured, carefully applied makeup streaked. Men's eyes reddened from the grief of separation.

 ``We love you and have always loved you. We always missed you,'' assured Andrés Curruchiche, who was 13 years old the day the army came to Chimaltenango
 shooting women and snatching children. After explaining that he was the only child who escaped the day Aura Marina disappeared, he paused.

 ``I am Andrés, your uncle. Welcome to your family.''

 The Guatemalan army killed Aura's mother in an ambush 19 years ago during a scorched earth campaign to destroy suspected rebel communities. Now, five years after the official end of the 36-year civil war that split hundreds of families, Guatemala has only just begun to find its missing children and place them with their aching parents.

 Two years after forming a national commission to reunite 444 known separated families, reunions began in late October. During the weekend, in a town two hours from the capital, up dusty unpaved mountain roads, the Curruchiche family became the third.


 ``I always felt so alone,'' said Aura, who was raised by a woman who she said mistreated her. ``I never imagined my family was still alive. It's very important to keep
 looking for children, to struggle to find them like my father struggled to find me.''

 Her cousin, Yovanny, and a nameless baby sister just 20 days old have not been located.

 They all disappeared on a day in 1982 when rumor spread that the army was coming. This was back when the Guatemalan army, eager to crush a guerrilla insurgency, sometimes went to the villages to massacre suspected leftists.

 Aura's mother and aunt gathered their children and ran for cover. But soldiers came toward them, and trapped them from behind as well. They fired at the women, while Andrés ran for his life.

 Three-year-old Aura was ripped from her sister Amalia's arms. The sisters -- Aura, Amalia and the unnamed baby -- were taken and separated. Their cousins, Veronica, Yovanny and Lidia, disappeared.

 ``I always tried to the find them,'' their grandmother María González said between heaving sobs at the weekend reunion. ``I never stopped thinking of them.''

 González found Aura that year at a market in a neighboring city, but the child was with a woman who threatened her by reminding her that it was an army lieutenant who gave away the child. Discouraged, she gave up.

 Two years later, her daughters-in-law dead and grandchildren still missing, González set out to find them again. Acting on a tip a villager had scribbled on a scrap of
 paper, she traveled to the capital by bus, getting police officers on the street to lead the way. Illiterate, she couldn't read the precious clue she clutched in her fist.

 The note led her to a shelter where she found Amalia, Veronica and Lidia. She took them home.

 The other three children were gone without a trace. A year and a half ago, the Guatemalan Mental Health League set out to find them.


 According to a study sponsored by Guatemala's Catholic Church, up to 450 cases like the Curruchiche family's exist, 80 percent of them in rural areas. At least 90
 percent of the children were forcibly taken by the army during the civil war.

 As in Aura's case, some were given away to childless women, others dumped at orphanages.

 Two-thirds of the abducted children were under the age of 8, making it hard for them to remember where they came from or to recall even their own identities.

 A coalition of aid organizations is trying to help them remember, breaking out dusty folders and clearing foggy memories. Driving long distances to war-torn towns, they are finally posing the question that for decades went unasked: Do you know where the children went?

 ``We start with a map of clues,'' said Axel Mejía, coordinator of a the missing children's program at Casa Alianza, which served as an orphanage during the war. ``It isn't easy.''

 Mejía's searches have taken him on four-day journeys that have included four-hour walks. He has been on 16-hour drives to Guatemalan refugee communities in Mexico, where he has slept in his car and been robbed.

 It took the Guatemalan Mental Health League a year and a half to find Aura, although it has had no luck finding the other two missing from her family. The League's Marco Antonio Garavito said efforts are hampered by a government unwilling to unearth the ugly deeds of the past.

 ``The government has done nothing for this. It hasn't been on the agenda, and it's still not on the agenda,'' he said. ``People who do not understand our motives oppose this. We are not doing this to see who's head should be lopped off.''

 Neighboring El Salvador has been quicker to reunite its families torn apart by 12 years of civil war. In the six years since El Salvador began its searches, 125 of 653
 families have been reunited. Another 95 are pending.


 In Guatemala, searches are stymied because many municipal offices were burned down during the war, leaving paper records scarce.

 Casa Alianza is actively working 90 cases, and has pinned down several where the children are known to have been adopted by American families.


 One Oregon family has requested DNA testing before the now-grown young man is notified. Some adoption agencies are unwilling to say where the children are.

 ``We have had to call people and tell them: `That child you adopted was not an orphan,' '' Mejía said. `` `He has parents.' ''

 The next reunion will take place as soon as Casa Alianza figures out what paperwork a Guatemalan refugee living in Mexico needs to return home to meet his son, now a 28-year-old man who goes by a different name and no longer speaks his native dialect.

 Mateo Simón, now called Pedro, anxiously awaits his father and hopes he'll come home for good. He is still looking for Marta, his 14-year-old step-mother who was washing clothes by the river the day the soldiers came.

 ``I've always had this feeling inside me that I wanted to erase,'' said Simón, who was raised at Casa Alianza after the army brought him and Marta to a military base. ``I found the medicine for that, the cure for my illness. Just knowing he's alive has calmed all the damage in my heart.''

                                    © 2001