Salvation Born of Slaughter
Beto met Manuel Ortega in the midst of this country’s bloodiest massacre in half a century.
Cpl. Ortega first spotted 6-year-old Beto when another soldier aimed his weapon at a movement in the brush. Ortega stopped him from firing at the boy, who was leading a horse to an isolated house, then saved Beto again during an attack on the house that no one was supposed to survive.
For the next four days, Beto tramped through the hills of Morazan province under the protection of Ortega, hiding in trenches, dodging gunfire and witnessing the most brutal kind of counter-guerrilla warfare. Soldiers from two elite battalions wiped out the villages of Guacamaya, La Joya, Cerro Pando, El Mozote and Los Toriles, killing 1,000 people--women, children and the elderly.
Thanks to his protector, Beto is one of two known survivors of the 1981 scorched-earth operation that came to be known as El Mozote--and the first proof of ex-soldiers’ claims that in those nine days of killing, some children were spared.
At a recent tearful reunion with the boy they gave up for dead 19 years ago, Beto’s parents called Ortega a hero. They see him as a soldier who defied inhumane orders when confronted with a helpless child.
But the human rights activists who worked to reunite Beto and his parents say there is a fine line between rescue and abduction.
The meeting with the corporal saved Beto’s life, but it ripped away every aspect of his identity except a nickname. It gave him a new home, but it left him feeling alone in the world, not knowing that he had a dozen brothers and sisters.
Beto is one of 183 Salvadoran war orphans who have been reunited with their families in the eight years since a peace agreement ended El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Most had become part of the lucrative international adoption trade and grew up in the United States or Europe, where they were found by Pro-Busqueda, a nonprofit group that searches for children who disappeared during the war.
Soldiers’ families raised at least 55 other children in El Salvador. An additional 374 are still missing.
Now a 25-year-old with children of his own, Beto is only beginning to think about the role that Ortega played in his life.
“I just don’t know yet,” he repeated, tears forming in his eyes, each time he tried to talk about the differences between what he had believed about himself for nearly two decades and what he has learned in the last few weeks.
Today he knows that he was born Gilberto Martinez, the son of a maid and a Marxist guerrilla fighter.
“We didn’t have a home,” said his long-lost father, Jose Senobio Guevara. “We were in the struggle.”
While Guevara was struggling to overthrow an oppressive, right-wing government, Beto’s mother, Antonia Martinez, was struggling to feed her three children.
When she changed jobs, her childless ex-employer, remembered only as Dona Elena, asked her to let Beto, then the only boy, stay in guerrilla-controlled Morazan. She planned to adopt him.
“I was with Dona Elena for a long time,” recalled Beto--so long that he forgot his mother’s name and what she looked like. His father came to visit occasionally, and Beto did remember that he was “Senobio.”
There were no schools in the remote rural region, where even now much of the heavy farm work is done by animals rather than tractors. So instead of going to class, Beto had chores.
“They had this horse, and I had to take it from one place to another,” said Beto, now a lanky man with sharp features and the deep tan and broad shoulders of the fisherman he has become. That was why he happened to be visiting Enemesia Luna, a friend of his foster mother, on Dec. 13, 1981, when a unit of the Atonal Battalion surrounded her house.
“We had hard orders, very strict orders,” Ortega recalled in a telephone interview from Framingham, Mass., where he now lives with his wife and five children. He remains unable to give words to the instructions that left no one on the soldiers’ route, except Beto, alive.
“When that harsh order came, I looked at that innocent child and I could not do it,” he said. Ortega hid Beto in some underbrush on the other side of a hill.
From there, they heard shots. Ortega knew that Luna was dead.
“ ‘You are going to come with me and be part of my family,’ ” Beto remembers Ortega telling him. “ ‘I hope that we both get out of this alive, but if it is necessary, I will give my life for you.’ ”
They rejoined the unit, Ortega said, and he refused to give up the boy, defying a lieutenant. He gave Beto his helmet, which covered the boy’s eyes and most of his nose, and fed him candy when the rations ran out.
Beto still trembles when he looks back on the next four days.
“A child doesn’t know what war is,” he explained. Even now, he can talk only about the sounds of gunfire, not what he saw.
He lived through the most savage orgy of killing El Salvador had suffered since 1932, when soldiers repressing an Indian uprising killed thousands of people.
Archeologists are only now documenting how many people the troops slaughtered during El Mozote, while human rights activists are trying to determine whether any more children survived.
Beto says that since then, he has heard stories of other children who were taken from Morazan, but he never saw any.
“Manuel told me, ‘You are the only one that we have brought from this place,’ ” he said.
When the killing in the province ended, Beto boarded a bus for the first time and went with Ortega to Chalatenango, on the other side of the country. Like Morazan, Ortega’s home province is a semidesert region on the Honduran border, one of El Salvador’s poorest.
In Shock When They Arrived
Fidelia Henriquez, Ortega’s mother, remembers that both Beto and her son were still in shock when they arrived at her home, itself practically in the shadow of the El Paraiso army base, where the Atonal Battalion was headquartered.
“Manuel said to me, crying: ‘Mama, you know that I’m in the war and that I could live or die. Take this little boy, love him and, if I die, he will be my replacement,’ ” Henriquez said recently.
If what the veteran soldier had seen at El Mozote had reduced him to tears, it had left the child traumatized, Henriquez said. Beto played only one game, recalled Adan Henriquez, Manuel’s older brother: “He would grab a stick, tie a string at each end and run around yelling ‘Pow, boom, pow, boom!’ He lined all the other children up in formation like soldiers.”
The family began to call him “Galil,” after the type of rifle that he imitated. Beto eventually calmed down, but he remained a quiet child in the boisterous Henriquez household, which was swollen at different times by 20 foster children.
Henriquez, then 54, bribed a doctor to swear that he had seen her give birth to Beto. That way, she could obtain a birth certificate for him and register him for school.
Since he never remembered being called anything except Beto, a common shortening of several names, she signed him up as Alberto Henriquez, using her last name because she was a widow at the time of his supposed birth.
Beto’s new family lived in less extreme poverty than what he had known in Morazan. They had a television, something he had never seen before.
He still had chores, but he also attended the village school. He finished sixth grade, like the rest of the family.
Fidelia Henriquez made cheese from the local dairy cooperative’s milk, and Adan Henriquez had the corn mill he still runs. The family’s financial situation improved when Manuel deserted the army in 1984, fled to the United States and began sending money home.
His mother joined him in 1986, leaving Beto with Adan and his wife, Lidia, in a rambling wooden house in the nearby village of Santa Barbara. The boy fit neatly into the family, between Lidia’s sons from a former marriage and the couple’s two small daughters.
“Lidia treated me as lovingly as if I were her own son,” said Beto. “She is also my mother for me.”
Beto distinguishes among his mothers--Dona Elena, Mama Fidelia, Mama Lidia, and, now, Mama Antonia. Adan is sometimes his father, sometimes his brother. But in some ways, many parents add up to none.
Talking about his own offspring, Beto said: “My two children are all I have in this life, my only family. Since I did not have this love from mother and father, I hope that they never lack it.”
Sandra Granados, a survivor of a later massacre who was adopted by a soldier’s family when she was 5, tried to explain.
“They love you, but it’s never quite enough, because you are not their child,” she said. “I will do whatever I can to take care of my [two] children and never leave them with someone else.”
To Ortega’s consternation, Beto volunteered for the army after Adan had succeeded in obtaining a draft deferment for him.
“After what we went through, I did not want that for him,” Ortega said.
“I never knew that Manuel was upset about that,” Beto said during an interview on the porch of his shaded adobe house a few miles from the Henriquez home. “I don’t talk to Manuel that much. When he comes to visit, he mainly likes to drink, and that does not interest me.”
Confronting the Memories at Last
Beto’s wife, Rosa, said that in the weeks since he learned his parents are alive, he has begun to talk about past events he never mentioned before. It is a process common to many of the people who are reunited with their families by Pro-Busqueda.
It forces them to confront the violence that so completely changed their lives and the part played in that violence by the people they have grown to love most.
“With the changing times, [ex-soldiers] now say that they took the children for humanitarian reasons,” said Walter Sotomayor, a spokesman for Pro-Busqueda. “But there has been a violation of the rights of these children, and it continues as long as they do not know their true identity.”
The Henriquez family insists it never meant to hide anything from Beto and that it told him as much as it knew of his story. Ortega said he had long wanted to take Beto to Morazan to look for his family but was concerned for himself, worried that any survivors of the massacre might confront him because of his role in the war.
“The day I heard that he had found his family, I was too excited to sleep,” Ortega said. “I lay in bed thinking, ‘Beto has parents now, he has brothers and sisters.’ ”
Beto hopes to find a way to take a week to visit his parents, who are now separated and live about 20 miles from each other in ex-guerrilla resettlement areas in the southeast of the country.
Still, the reappearance of his original family has not diminished Beto’s love and gratitude for the Henriquez clan. Above all, Manuel Ortega is still a hero to him: “Thank God that he took me as a brother. He risked his life for mine.”