Emiliano Martinez was 8 years old when Salvadoran troops razed his village and gunned down peasants in a bloody campaign to root out rebel sympathizers.
For 17 years Martinez thought his family had died in the massacre. He found out Thursday that wasn't true.In a tin-roofed brick shack in the arid village of Tecoluca, Martinez was tearfully reunited with his mother, brothers and sisters, becoming one of the lucky few among the estimated 300 Salvadoran children separated from their families during the 1979-1991 war.
Emiliano - who has lived 13 years in France, where he works as a quality control supervisor - greeted his mother in Spanish mixed with French. He now spells his name Emilien and has taken his adoptive mother's last name, Maudet.
"There was so much suffering in me, but it ended today when I met my mother and my brothers and sisters again," he said Thursday, hugging his mother.
His mother, Maria Bonilla, said she had hoped for this moment through all those years.
"I never though he was dead. I had faith that one day I would find him," said Bonilla, a 47-year-old farm woman.
She said Emilien "is identical" to his father, who was killed in El Salvador's civil war.
After he was separated from his family Oct. 22, 1981, Emilien said, "They told me I was an orphan. I didn't think my parents were alive. They never told me anything in the orphanage."
He is more fortunate than most of the hundreds of Salvadoran children separated from their families during the war. In some cases, human rights groups say, soldiers forcibly separated children from their mothers as a means of psychological warfare against leftist rebels and their supporters.
That wasn't the case with Emilien. He simply got lost during 22 days of shooting in which the army swept through two villages looking for rebel sympathizers. He wandered in the mountains for almost a month before he was picked up by an army patrol and taken to a hospital.
"There was an army sweep and lots of dead people," Emilien said, recounting an 8-year-old's memories of what came to be known as the Massacre of Rion, the village where he and his family then lived.
After four years of being shuttled from one orphanage to another, he was adopted by Bernadette Maudet, a French nursing supervisor.
His reunion was made possible by the The Association for the Search for Disappeared Children, a Salvadoran group that has located and identified 74 war "orphans" since 1994 and is working to reunite them with their families.
Emilien says he wants to return permanently to El Salvador some day and marry a Salvadoran.
Jesuit priest Jon Cortina, director of the nonprofit search association, understands the need that the children have to return to the country of their birth.
"We don't want to tear the children away (from their adoptive families), but the children have the right to know their own identity."