The Mothers in White Headscarves
What happened to their grandchildren?
History is full of atrocities. The Holocaust, the Cambodian killing fields, genocide in Ruanda, are just a few from the Twentieth Century. They are well known. We studied them in our high school history classes and our collegiate seminars. Why have I never heard of the tragedies in Argentina during my lifetime, during my adulthood, in fact not until recently? Why am I just now learning about this government-sponsored murder of mothers and fathers in my own hemisphere?
Argentina. 1976-1983. Thirty thousand young people were literally thrown into the sea after being killed by their own military-ruled government. If you happened to be a pregnant woman, you got a stay of execution until your baby was born. Then you were killed a few days later. Your child disappeared also – given to parents with the politically-correct thinking of the day, almost always members of the very military that had killed the child’s real father and mother.
So why am I hearing about these children now, thirty years later? Because of their grandmothers who never stopped looking for them. The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo is an organization named for the square in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aries, Argentina. This is the place where the mothers of the murdered young people of the mid-1970s stood their ground to demand the truth of their own children's fate. The founder is Estela Carlotto, whose daughter, Laura, was murdered after giving birth to a son who would be 36 years-old in 2014. He is one of the estimated 500 children taken from the arms of their mothers at birth, never to see them again.
The 30th Anniversary
Arrests, Torture, Murder, and Internal Conflict
On Thursday, April 30, 1977, a few mothers were only there to ask for information about their missing children. What they got for their efforts was nothing but silence. With each subsequent Thursday, the number of mothers rose. The increasing numbers created a problem because public gatherings of more than three people were forbidden. The police demanded the women disperse. Instead, they paired off with each set holding hands and simply walking around the square. There was no law against walking. And so began the rise of international awareness of one of the most heartless governmental crimes in South American history.
By the end of 1977 three of the first members were arrested by the government. After torture they were thrown – alive – from a plane and into the sea. Their remains eventually washed ashore and were buried in a common grave. In 2003 forensic evidence was gathered and determined the cause of death. Arrests and beatings continued to happen sporadically, but the campaign continued.
The organization itself has not been without conflicts. Truth be told, the group split into two factions in 1986. The original group took the name, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Founding Line. The new group, led by Hebe de Bonafini, was known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association. They differ on taking state compensation for the “disappeared” children ($275,000 per child), the use of DNA to establish family ties, and the priority of bringing the guilty to justice.
Were You Aware of the Argentine Grandmothers?
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But All Worth It
As recently as this month, the grandchild of the original founder of the grandmother’s organization was found. The 36-year-old who had gone through life as Ignacio Hurban walked into the DNA bank set up by the Grandmothers. He asked to have his blood compared to that of all the group’s members. He learned that the last time his real mother saw him she gave him the name, Guido. He is the 114th person to be reunited with his biological family.
“I don’t want to die without hugging him,” said 83-year-old Estella Carlotto, “and now I will be able to.” He has lived by the name Ignacio Hurban, a pianist and composer, employed by a music school in Olavarria, southwest of Buenos Aires.
The Grandmothers are not giving up their search. "We found our 108th child this year," Carlotto said, "but we have more than 400 still to find."
1979 - 1983 Military Takeover
Finally - Some Justice and Some Reunions
What became of those responsible for the seven-year-long nightmare for Argentine families? In 1984 the Argentine Truth Commission reported on human rights violations that occurred during the military rule, including 9,000 cases of “forced disappearance.” Some commanders were brought to trial in those first years after civilian rule was restored, but the first presidents granted pardons, so any attempts at bringing the guilty to justice were abandoned as futile. In 2003 President Nestor Kirchner resumed the prosecution of those under suspicion from the “dirty” years.
The two former dictators were convicted of murder and systematically kidnapping infants. Jorge Rafael Videla died in prison in 2013. Reynaldo Bignone is still serving his 50-year sentence. The others accused of involvement in the systematic theft of babies are: Santiago Omar Riveros, Ruben Oscar Franco, Antonio Vanek, Jorge Luis Magnacco, Juan Antonio Azic and Jorge Acosta.
So, back to my original question. Why did I not know about this political and human tragedy in the 1970s and 1980s when it was happening? Maybe because I was a young bride myself, carrying and giving birth to two of my own three children. The knowledge that I have now gives a whole new meaning to the phrase: “But for the Grace of God . . .”
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