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Correspondent Thursday, 26 October, 2000, 10:25 GMT 11:25 UK
Finding Leticia
Tom Gibb, who covered El Salvador's civil war for the BBC, follows Maria Leticia - who always believed she was an El Salvadoran orphan - on a journey to meet her birth parents for the first time and to discover one of the darkest legacies of the Cold War.

Finding Leticia was broadcast on 14th October at 1850 BST on BBC 2.

I remember the visit by forensic experts to El Salvador at the end of the war. They had worked all over the world - identifying the disappeared in Argentina, excavating massacres in Guatemala and the Philippines. But nothing prepared them for what they found in a mass grave in El Salvador.

Children Massacred

Normally they uncovered the remains of young men. But here they found a hundred and sixteen skeletons of small children and one pregnant woman. The children had been shot, stabbed and killed with grenades.

During five years covering the war in El Salvador, I had often heard from

"How can you ask a mother to forget that her child was stolen from her. And forgive? Who are we supposed to forgive?"

Father Cortina
survivors stories of appalling massacres by Salvadoran troops -often fresh from training by US advisors - in which thousands of villagers were murdered. Almost always it was the old, the women and the children who were caught and killed. Those of fighting age were able to escape and hide in the hills.

The piles of little skeletons proved beyond all doubt the stories were true. But it was the only excavation the authorities allowed. The war ended with a negotiated settlement and a slogan to "forgive and forget". That, many in the army and in Washington hoped, would be the end of the matter.

But it was not - because it turned out that not all the children had been killed. Many had been
taken by the army to be put in orphanages, sold or given away for adoption. The idea was to stop them growing up "indoctrinated with Communism" and prevent a future time bomb. But instead it created one which is exploding today - as more and more of the children are found.

Father Jon Cortina

Typically, it was a Jesuit Priest, Father Jon Cortina, who started the search after he heard stories of small children being literally ripped from their parent's arms to be put on army helicopters.
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Father Cortina can't forget the past
I knew Father Cortina during the war. Jesuits like him first taught peasant communities to stand up for their rights. They paid a high price. I'll never forget the sight of six of his colleagues - the country's leading intellectuals - lying in their pyjamas in the sticky morning heat - brains spattered across the neatly cut grass. They had been murdered by soldiers. Father Cortina should have been with them but had been delayed the night before.

Today he has no patience for the slogan, Forgive and Forget. "That's nonsense," he says. "How can you ask a mother to forget that her child was stolen from her. And forgive? Who are we supposed to forgive?" No-one, he points out, has confessed and asked forgiveness for what amounted to a systematic policy of murdering and abducting children.

Maria Leticia Burrows

This is the background to the journey by Maria Leticia Burrows, from Cleveland, Ohio in the United States,
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Maria Leticia talks of her expectations
to visit her Salvadoran birth parents for the first time. She is one of more than seventy children Father Cortina's organization has now traced, some in El Salvador - but others in the United states, Europe and Canada. It is however the tip of the iceberg. Father Cortina's group has almost 600 cases on its books and the numbers of new cases are rising fast. Their idea is not to break up adopted families - but rather to arrange meetings between the children and their birth families to ease their pain.

Maria was taken from her mother by the police when just three months old and put into an orphanage.She was then given away for adoption to a well intentioned US couple, Don and Marty Burrows. All they knew about her was her name, Leticia, which they kept, leaving a trail which Father Cortina's group were later able to follow.

Miraculously Maria's birth parents, both guerrillas, survived the war. It was a highly emotional reunion. Even as witnesses it was hard for us to keep back tears. For Maria it opened a whole past life she grew up knowing nothing about. For her Salvadoran parents it opened old wounds - but also started a process of healing. They had for years wondered if their daughter was dead - agonising over her loss.
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Maria Leticia begins her new life in the US

However for the society as a whole that process has hardly started. For the first time we were able to interview a former member of the Salvadoran army who was trained in the United States and fought through the entire war. I had heard so many stories of the perpetrators of the massacres. During the war I almost certainly met some of them on trips out with the army. But they never opened up to tell what had happened - only hinting at it. A strict code of silence was kept about the abuses which is only now breaking down.

In his interview the former army member described in horrendous detail how he was part of the killing of hundreds of children. They were shot, had their throats slit or were even bayonetted. As the war continued - and the policy started to have a negative effect on soldiers' morale - so the orders changed. Many of the youngest children were taken to be given away or more often sold for adoption abroad. They became, as Father Cortina puts it, war booty.

Painful Memories

The soldier
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Former army member speaks to correspondent Tom Gibb
talked to us because he has, since the end of the war, been racked by terrible guilt and nightmares. He cannot close his eyes without seeing those who died. It has driven him close to madness.He believes that he is punishing himself for the past - passing judgement on what he did.

Like Father Cortina, he has concluded that the wounds of the past can only be healed by bringing them out into the open - and helping to ease the pain of those who suffered. He says many former soldiers like him have information which they would be willing to make available to trace some of the thousands of other missing children. However they are afraid of reprisals in a country still caught up in an atmosphere of hatred and violence left over from the war. We had to hide the soldier's face and voice for the film.

Some of the Colonels and Generals responsible for the policy, who almost certainly have most
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An emotional moment upon meeting her lost family
information, are also no longer living in El Salvador. They were given US citizenship even though they presided over war crimes quite equalling those of Bosnia.

Somehow, finding the missing children like Leticia is a test - as to how far El Salvador and the United States are willing to come to terms with a terrible past which it has been more convenient to forget.

Reporter: Tom Gibb

Producer: Robin Barnwell

Editor: Fiona Murch

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Leticia's birth mother speaks of her forced separation from her daughter
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