The Determined Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo

By Esty Dinur, Argentina


The Mothers and Grandmothers protest 
on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires
It has been 25 years since generals in the Argentinean army staged a coup d'etat that resulted in seven years of terror with thousands of tortures, murders and unsolved disappearances. Estela Barnes de Carlotto is still looking for the 500 remaining missing, including her grandson. 

De Carlotto is a founder and longtime president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of May Square)  an extraordinary group of women who have worked since 1977 to expose what happened to their missing children and grandchildren. 

The organization's name comes from the women's daily protests at the government building in Buenos Aires, held
now only on certain commemorative days, such as the anniversary of the coup and of the dictatorship's demise.

The return of democracy in Argentina hasn't diminished the grandmothers' struggle; it has professionalized it. With their team of lawyers, doctors, and psychologists, the Abuelas have helped 70 who had disappeared to reunite with their loved ones. 

Many of those still missing were children when they were kidnapped along with their parents or were born in the clandestine detention centers where their pregnant mothers had been taken. Some of these children were
registered as children of members of the military and police forces.  Others were abandoned or left in institutions with their identities unknown. 

"Already at the start of our fight we could see there was a premeditated plan," says de Carlotto. "It has been unequivocally proven, through testimonies and in lawsuits, that there were clandestine centers where pregnant women were detained and gave birth. With our children, the present was kidnapped; with the grandchildren, they tried to kidnap the future. We have been trying to rescue that future." 

The current Argentinean government has passed impunity laws enabling most of the military junta members to live freely and without fear, de Carlotto charges. Although a law prohibits them from leaving the country, these men are fleeing "and the children who have been located are disappearing again when they take them away with them." 

The Abuelas has initiated a lawsuit against the crime of robbing grandchildren and 11 of those accused of that crime have been detained and will face lawsuits. Recently a judge declared the laws of pardon and impunity unconstitutional, bringing the struggle to repeal them to the courts. 

"We want to know what happened to our children and grandchildren and who did it to them," says de Carlotto. "We want the criminals to have to admit to their crimes and stand trial. We will continue to struggle
until that happens."

De Carlotto, 69, is small and elegant. As president of the Abuelas for the past 10 years, she has traveled throughout the world, working with human rights organizations and others to expose the truth, find the
children, bring the guilty to justice and make sure that the atrocities of the military regime don't happen again. 

"No one and nothing has stopped us from our search," said de Carlotto during an interview with WIN in Madison, Wisconsin. "We investigated and made daily visits to juvenile courts, orphanages, abandoned children's
homes. We also investigated adoptions that took place during that time.  We receive reports from the Argentinean people. Nowadays, we focus on the children themselves. They are young adults now and we call on them to seek the truth about themselves." 

Although de Carlotto has told the story about her own missing relatives countless times tears come to her eyes when she relates it. 

She was principal of a school in La Plata when the generals took over on March 24, 1976, and several members of her family became politically involved. The oldest of her four children, Laura, was a student activist in the Peronista Youth Association at the University of La Plata. This organization, like many others throughout the country, opposed the military dictatorship. 

The first family member to disappear was Maria Claudia Falcone, the 16-year sister-in-law of de Carlotto's second daughter. After the "Night of the Pencils," when middle and high school students demonstrated for lower education costs, she was never seen again.

Next was de Carlotto's husband, Guido, snatched by undercover agents when he went to Laura's house after the family hadn't heard from her.  Expecting a raid, Laura had escaped to a friends' house, but her father was captured. When Guido didn't return by morning, de Carlotto looked for him in hospitals, churches, police stations and military bases. She received a message the next day that he would be released in return for 14 million pesos -- enough to buy a house. She paid the ransom and, after 25 nerve-wracking days, Guido was released "in a deplorable condition," she says. In the meantime, Laura left for Buenos Aires, the capital, while the rest of the family "pretended that everything was as usual," de Carlotto explains.

Laura wrote each week up to November 16, 1977, the date of her last letter. The family never heard from her again.

De Carlotto set out on the same journey again, this time seeking her daughter. She was told by a military officer that Laura would be killed, but heard from a friend who was kidnapped and then released that Laura, who had been pregnant when she was abducted, gave birth to a baby boy in a military hospital. The baby was taken away from her just hours after his birth. The friend advised de Carlotto to look for the baby in orphanages and she retired from her job in order to do so. 

Eventually, de Carlotto met with other women whose children had disappeared. The founding group of the Abuelas met in October 1977  "to find these children and restore them to their legitimate families, while bringing justice to their parents, our children," said de Carlotto. 

Their decision to hold demonstrations put them at risk.

"The dictatorship considered us enemies," says de Carlotto. "We were surrounded by government forces, dogs, tanks, weapons. Frequently, demonstrators would be abducted. Still, we did it, while at the same time we combed orphanages looking for our grandchildren. We couldn't get any information. It was a time of terror."

On August 25, 1978, the de Carlottos received a summons to appear at a police station in a town 60 kilometers (23 miles) from their home. Upon arrival, they were told to sign a paper documenting Laura's death. De Carlotto broke down and screamed at the officer that he was a murderer.  He took out a gun and pointed it at her, telling her husband to sign it if they wanted Laura's body. The body was badly mutilated, as was another corpse they saw of a pre-teen boy. 

Laura's death brought "a pain I'll always have," says de Carlotto. And it made her even more determined to find her grandson and to seek peace and justice for Argentina. 

Due to the Abuelas' efforts, the National Bank of Genetic Data was created in Buenos Aires to preserve the genetic data of relatives of disappeared children. Also being used is a method developed by the Blood Center of New York and the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington called "grandparentage index" that identifies familial relations through blood analysis. DNA testing has simplified identification even more and allows experts to confirm biological links even with far-removed relatives. That is helpful when no immediate
relatives have survived. 

"It allows us to leave what's needed for the identification of our grandchildren if we're not there anymore," says de Carlotto. 

It is important, she insists, that the kidnapped children know who they are. 

"They were torn from the arms of their parents with real violence," she said. "They were torn from their identity and their personal and family history and subjected to a doubly traumatizing situation -- the disappearance of their parents and their own disappearance. They were hidden and taken away. All laws were ignored. Transgression itself became law and perversion the rule." 

These children were raised feeling that something is amiss, wondering about voids in their history. When they find their true families, "they put together the puzzle of their lives, the pieces that didn't quite fit," she said. 

But when that happens, the situation is often traumatic and the children need time to adjust, admits Carlotto. Psychologists who work with the Abuelas help them and, eventually, "we see true relationships created, with the depth that recognition and access to one's own truth grants.  This liberates the child's psyche from the evil that is ingrown in it."

Recently, the children of those who disappeared, were murdered or had to escape, created their own organization. Members of Hijos (Children) find out where a junta murderer or torturer lives, protest in front of their homes and spray-painting on the entrance "Danger, a murderer lives here." Such "outings" brings about condemnation.

"We applaud this, though we don't participate because sometimes the police come and the protesters have to run and we're too old for that," said de Carlotto.
 

Dinur is a freelance writer with special interest in international
women's issues. Her radio show is "A Public Affair." She serves as vice-president of the
Board of Directors at WORT, 89.9 FM, community radio in Madison,
Wisconsin.  This article is reprinted from WIN Magazine.