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For Immediate Release

Massachusetts Residents Stolen from Their Families in El Salvador during Civil War Announce Formation of Support Group

Human Rights Groups Call for El Salvador to Be Held Accountable for Campaign of Child Abduction in 1980s

Cambridge, Mass - 07/27/2007

Cambridge, MA—Today, three Massachusetts residents—Imelda Auron (W. Roxbury), Suzanne Berghaus (Wilmington), and Nelson DeWitt (Newton)—spoke for the first time as a group about their experience as children who were abducted from their families by El Salvadoran government forces during the El Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s. They were later adopted by families in Massachusetts.

Each of the people who spoke at the press conference, as well as others in attendance, have either had reunions with their birth families, or they are currently in the process of trying to identify them. The ongoing reunion process, which involves extensive investigations and DNA testing, is due to the pioneering work of Pro-Busqueda, an El Salvadoran NGO, with the technical and institutional support of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

Suzanne Berghaus (© PHR)
Imelda Auron (© PHR)
Nelson Dewitt (© PHR)

"Their story is about families piecing back together their broken lives and identities," stated Susannah Sirkin, Deputy Director of PHR. "It is about the fundamental right to know the truth, for parents and siblings to find their children, sisters and brothers, and the right of these children to know their very identities. These young people sitting next to me today are the tangible work of Pro-Busqueda."

The "children" called for all other people who may have also been taken as a child from their families in El Salvador to come forward. They announced during the press conference the formation of a support group for other individuals who had been taken from their El Salvadoran birth families as children and turned over to adoption agencies in the US and Europe. They also expressed gratitude for the efforts of Pro-Busqueda, PHR and others to ensure that they were reunited with their birth families.

"Being reunited with my birth family has meant a lot to me – it's meant a lot to my brother and my sister, to my father, and to my grandma – who never forgot and who never stopped looking," stated Nelson Dewitt of Newton. "Thank you again for bringing my family back together."

Each individual spoke in detail about their experiences. One of the missing children, Imelda Auron of West Roxbury, told how she witnessed the murder of her parents at the hands of government forces in El Salvador when she was four:

"I can still feel my brother's hand pressed tightly over my mouth. For every gunshot fired, his hand got tighter. I remember the fear in my mother's eyes, the bravery in my father's. As my mother fell, she reached out her hand to me. I knew she was dead…

We became orphans in an instant, that night…

Now I can finally put the pieces of my life together and wake from the sense of tragedy that has consumed me… I know it's a long journey, but with every step I take I am closer to healing. It's been 27 years after that dreadful night, but I speak today in the name of my family, in the name of all those families in El Salvador. My father speaks through me. We heartily support the work of Pro-Busqueda and Physicians for Human Rights."

If you believe you were separated from your family during the 1980-1992 civil war in El Salvador and may have biological relatives searching for you, you are encouraged to

  • Visit Pro-Búsqueda's website ; and
  • Contact Rachel Shigekane of the Human Rights Center at the University of California at Berkeley via email or by phone at (510) 642-0965 ; or
  • Contact Pro-Búsqueda directly via email

Besides reuniting abducted children with their families, Pro-Busqueda has been also working to ensure that the El Salvadoran government is held accountable for the gross human rights abuses it committed through a systematic campaign of child abductions. Lenor Argeaga, an attorney who represented Pro-Busqueda this week in its case against El Salvador at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, spoke about that critical component of Pro-Busqueda's work. Ester Alvarenga, the Chief Investigator at Pro-Busqueda, discussed the ongoing efforts to find the several hundred children still unaccounted for by investigators.

"Because of their stories, we can say with certainty that there was a systematic policy of violence and kidnapping," stated Alvarenga. "That's why we're here – because there's no opportunity for justice in El Salvador. That's why we need your help – human rights groups, the media, and concerned citizens – if we are to solve these human rights cases." Alvarenga added, "We will do this work until the end."

Pro-Busqueda was founded by the late Father John Cortina, a Jesuit priest who spent his life working tirelessly to reunite families and ensure that El Salvador was held accountable by international institutions, such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights at the Organization of American States, for the theft of these children from their families.

Dr. Robert McAndrews, Ph.D, a professor of social work at Salem State, played a critical role in connecting many of the children with Pro-Busqueda attended the press conference as well. He will continue to support the development of the support group.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is an independent organization that uses medicine and science to stop mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. We are supported by the expertise and passion of health professionals and concerned citizens alike.

Since 1986, PHR has conducted investigations in more than 40 countries around the world, including Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, the United States, the former Yugoslavia, and Zimbabwe.

  • 1986 — Led investigations of torture in Chile gaining freedom for heroic doctors there
  • 1988 — First to document the Iraqi use of chemical weapons on Kurds providing               evidence for prosecution of war criminals
  • 1996 — Exhumed mass graves in the Balkans and Rwanda to provide evidence for               International Criminal Tribunals
  • 1997 — Shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
  • 2003 — Warned US Policymakers on health and human rights conditions prior to and               during the invasion of Iraq
  • 2004 — Documented genocide and sexual violence in Darfur in support of international               prosecutions
  • 2010 — Investigated the epidemic of violence spread by Burma’s military junta
  • 2011 — Championed the principle of noninterference with medical services in times of               armed conflict and civil unrest during the Arab Spring
  • 2012 — Trained doctors, lawyers, police, and judges in the Democratic Republic of the               Congo, Kenya, and Syria on the proper collection of evidence in sexual               violence cases
  • 2013 — Won first prize in the Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention with MediCapt, our               mobile app that documents evidence of torture and sexual violence

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