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PHR Attends Reunion of Family Separated by Civil War in El Salvador

For Immediate Release

© Stefan Schmitt/PHR
Suzanne Berghaus (born Maria Lorena Saenz) embraces her mother, Maria Venancia Saenz, in Cacaopera, Morazán department, El Salvador, as her father, Valentin (in hat), looks on. (Enlarge the image)

April 3, 2007: PHR's International Forensic Program Director Stefan Schmitt attended the reunion of a family in El Salvador with a daughter they hadn't seen in 25 years. Suzanne Berghaus (her birth name is Maria Lorena Saenz), the youngest of eight children, was born in the department of Morazán, El Salvador in 1980 during the 12-year civil war that led to the forced separation of thousands of children from their families. Taken from her family in February 1982 by a high-ranking member of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, Suzanne was later adopted by a family from Massachusetts. She returned to El Salvador on April 3 to be reunited with her biological parents and siblings. Complying with the lieutenant's demand, Suzanne's family believes, is what saved them from being killed.

During the civil war which took place in El Salvador between 1980 and 1992, Morazán was one of the hardest-hit zones in the country. Suzanne's biological parents, Maria and Valentín, had eight children, of whom Suzanne was the youngest. The conflict had displaced Suzanne's family from their village of origin, as they were forced to flee from armed incursions in the area.

In February 1982, Suzanne, her biological parents and her seven siblings were seeking refuge in a small village called Osicala, in Morazán. The family had been living with other refugees in the local school hall, but later moved to a shack which they had constructed out of metal sheets donated by the Red Cross. At that time, a lieutenant from the Salvadoran Armed Forces approached the family and asked them to hand over their youngest child to him. As a result of the atmosphere at the time, the family felt unable to refuse this demand made by a high-ranking member of the army.

The family believes that it was only as a result of giving their daughter to the lieutenant that the rest of the family was not killed. Suzanne's biological uncle, Alfonso commented: "It was thanks to that little girl that they didn't kill us. A member of the army took her. If they hadn't let him, he would have killed them". The fate of Maria and Valentin's daughter was unknown to them until they were traced by Pro-Búsqueda in June 2006.

Suzanne came to El Salvador in March 2006 to act as an international election observer. Having heard about the work of Pro-Búsqueda, she decided to contact the organisation to ask for help tracing her biological family. Pro-Búsqueda's Investigations Unit located Suzanne's biological family in June 2006. DNA samples were taken from both Suzanne and her parents and confirmed their biological relationship. Since that time, Suzanne has been exchanging letters and photos with her biological family through Pro-Búsqueda. Earlier this year, Suzanne was reunited with three of her biological siblings who now live in the USA.

Physicians for Human Rights has provided support to Pro-Búsqueda for nearly twenty years.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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