(WOMENSENEWS)–This month marks the 30th year of looking.
Since Oct. 22, 1977, dozens of women whose sons and daughters kidnapped and presumed murdered during the bloody military dictatorship that ran Argentina from 1976 to 1983 have been trying to find two younger generations. Their children and grandchildren are among the 30,000 who were “disappeared” during the nation’s so-called dirty war.
While most of their sons and daughters perished during the dictatorship, testimonies from survivors of the over 350 clandestine detention camps indicated that their grandchildren were presumably alive.
For decades the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been looking for those missing grandchildren. The group’s name reflects its origin in the 1970s when mothers and grandmothers gathered at Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires every Thursday afternoon for a half-hour walk to protest their children’s and grandchildren’s disappearance.
But recently, to the consolation of the grandmothers, that search is no longer going in a one-way direction.
As the result of an outreach program in the early 1990s with youth and artistic groups, young adults with questions about their identities are increasingly seeking out the grandmothers.
“We have long said there will come a day when our grandchildren will search for us and that day has finally come,” says Rosa Roisinblit, 88, vice president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who found her grandson in 2000 thanks to an anonymous phone call to the group’s office.
So far, the grandmothers have assisted the recovery of identity of 88 young people.
A Friend and a Rock Band Help
Last July, in one widely reported story in the main Argentine media, for instance, Maria Belen Altamiranda, a resident of the city of Cordoba, at the age of 29 found out who her parents were with the help of the grandmothers, a friend and a rock band.
“The meeting was very moving, lots of mixed feelings,” Altamiranda is quoted on the grandmothers’ Web site, describing the meeting with surviving relatives that followed. “I am glad I have found them and at the same time it is a very sad story.”
Altamiranda’s reunion began in 2005, when she confided to one of her friends that she wanted to learn who her biological parents were.
The friend had seen an announcement about the grandmothers’ work on TV as part of a video of the Argentine rock group, Bersuit Vergarabat, which has been a strong supporter of the grandmothers since 1998 and in 2003 introduced a group of them to an audience of over 20,000 people at a huge concert.
The friend gave her the 800 number of the grandmothers, whose group in the 1980s had worked with scientists to develop a genetics blood test–the Grandparenthood Index–to enable the identification of the kidnapped children. In 1987 the national genetics data bank was created and the grandmothers deposited their blood in it.
Altamiranda’s blood sample matched her genetically to Irma Rojas, 72, a member of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Theater for Identity
Another key ally in steering young people toward the grandmothers is Theater for Identity, a group of young artists in Buenos Aires who write and perform plays on issues of identity and power.
Each year, thousands of people attend their free weekly performances in various parts of the capital city.
After each cycle, dozens of young people call the grandmothers to find information about identity issues. If they are not children of the disappeared they are helped to find information about their biological origins anyway.
The grandmothers’ work led to the conceptualization of a new human right: the right to identity, which includes the right to know nationality, name and family relations. In 1989 it became part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as Article 8, called by many “the Argentine article,” a reference to the nation’s many “los desaparecidos.”
In many cases the grandmothers have found that the disappeared children were given as war booty to members of the police and the military. Sometimes they were abandoned in the streets, without any kind of identification.
Separating ‘Subversive’ Families
Separating the children from their legitimate families was a way to prevent them from growing up hating the military and to punish their families for having produced “subversives,” as anybody who opposed the regime was called.
In their own study published earlier this year, the grandmothers documented nine camps where 96 pregnant women were among the 1,466 detained and disappeared during the late 1970s. Most were killed after delivering their babies.
“After I buried my daughter, a new level of struggle started,” says Estela Barnes de Carlotto, 76, who has been the president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo since 1989 and is one of the few members who have recovered a body. “I found out that my daughter while in the torture camp had said to her friends: ‘As long as my mother lives she is never going to forgive the military.’ And she was right. She knew me better than I did. If somebody had told me then that I would dedicate my life to searching for the truth and struggling against historical amnesia, I would not have believed it.”
In 2002, Carlotto’s home in La Plata was riddled with bullets one night but she survived the assassination attempt. In 2003 she was one of the five recipients of the United Nations Award for the Defense of Human Rights.
In 2005 “amnesty laws” that had prevented the prosecution of hundreds of perpetrators were annulled, and in 2007 the presidential pardons were declared unconstitutional. One of the cases that the grandmothers worked on for years provided the crucial evidence that led to the annulment of the amnesty laws.
In July, Carlotto was nominated for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations network of scientists studying climate change, won earlier this month for their work on global warming.
When she learned of the nomination for the work of these 30 years Carlotto said that she felt great emotion but also made it clear that if the prize was ever awarded it had to be not just for her but for all the grandmothers who struggled together, because the work has not been done in solitude but in intense and daily collaboration with all of them.
Rita Arditti was born in Argentina and lives and works in Cambridge, Mass. She is the author of “Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina,” University of California Press, Berkeley, 1999. She is professor emerita at the Union Institute and University.
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For more information:
The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo
(in Spanish with a section in English):
Women’s Review of Books, “Do You Know Who You Are?”:
“Widows in Chile Seek Prosecution for Missing Kin”:
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