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Argentina's recent history

Stolen babies

by Estela de Carlotto

Opinion

Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo

Estela de Carlotto, the president of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo

During Argentina’s military dictatorship, 30,000 people disappeared and were murdered. Some political prisoners were pregnant and bore their babies in detention. Those children were taken away from them and illegally given for adoption – and that was often the last their relatives ever heard of them (for a short history of this issue, see box on page 368). The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (“Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo”) are still looking for their grandchildren today, as Estela de Carlotto elaborates in our interview. Interview with Estela de Carlotto

Why did you join the Abuelas in 1978?
My husband Guido was kidnapped by the military in 1977. That night, he had gone to my daughter’s place – Laura, the same daughter who later disappeared – and saw that someone had searched the house. It was empty, but there was blood on the floor. When he came out on to the street again, they kidnapped and held him for a month. That was the first time I went out looking for a disappeared family member. Guido was badly tortured and then released; he lost 15 kilogrammes. Later that year, Laura was kidnapped. I started looking for her, at police stations, hospitals, everywhere. I had four children and I was the director of a primary school. In a dictatorship, it is dangerous to search for a disappeared person. Then one day, a woman who had also been a prisoner told my husband she had met Laura in a torture camp. She said Laura was alive and six months pregnant. Then I heard that other mothers were looking for their missing children and grandchildren, so I went to join them.

What did you encounter in that organisation?
I found companions, women who understood what I was going through, who listened, whom I could talk to. We pleaded with politicians; we wrote letters to the press, to judges, to the church and even to the Pope. We worked out strategies to get information on the disappeared. We went to orphanages in the hope of finding our new-born grandchildren. We went to hospitals; we went everywhere. We learned to cope with the situation together.

What did you expect when the dictatorship ended in 1983?
We were so happy when democracy was reinstalled; we were overjoyed. We had lived through seven years of murder and torture. We knew what had happened, because those who survived or went into exile told us. In 1985, a big court case dealt with the dictatorship. Many women from our organisation, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, were witnesses and told the court what happened to our families. But we were naïve in believing that our fight was over. We thought that the new government would look for our grandchildren and hunt down the perpetrators, but we were wrong. Amnesty laws were soon passed under pressure from the military, and there was even a general amnesty in 1990. Murderers, kidnappers and torturers – they all went free. All members of the former Junta were free. Those years of impunity were terrible, and we realised we had to keep on fighting.

But the amnesty was legally binding. What could you do?
Well, the first trials had not dealt with the robbed children, so kidnapping children was not included in the amnesty. And after Néstor Kirchner became president, the amnesty laws were annulled. Today, the judicial system in Argentina is actually functioning as it should. The crimes of the dictatorship are now classified as crimes against humanity, so they do not fall under any statute of limitations. Even in decades
to come, those who are found to have committed a crime during the dictatorship can be put to trial.

What became of the kidnapping matter?
After twelve years of fight, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo managed to prove that the robbery of babies followed a systematic plan, and did not happen by circumstance. For this crime, Jorge Videla, a former dictator, was recently sentenced to 50 years in prison. Moreover, trials against the military’s civilian helpers have started too.

What does society need to heal and find peace after the traumatic experience of brutal dictatorship?
For society to live in democracy and peace, the crimes have to be punished. Three things are vital for a society to heal: truth, memory and justice. Truth means finding out what exactly happened, getting to know all there is to know about the past crimes. Memory means not forgetting and passing on the knowledge to future generations. Justice means punishing the perpetrators. We don’t need special courts for that purpose, we can take the same courts where the robbery of a chicken is dealt with. We have laws that call for murderers to be punished. We’re not asking for revenge, we want the normal laws to apply, that is all.

What does impunity signify in this context?
Impunity condemns all of us to live side by side with murderers. If they are free, we can bump into them on the street, in a bakery, wherever. This has happened to former prisoners before – they happened to run into their torturers in a restaurant. This is an offence for society as a whole. It is unacceptable that I might encounter the murderer of my daughter in the streets at any time. There can be no amnesty. I am very grateful that the present government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is listening to us. This is not the case in other Latin American countries with a history of brutal military rule, like Chile or Brazil, for instance.

Do you think there should be amnesties at some point?
No, there must be no amnesty. Thirty thousand people disappeared and were murdered, many others were tortured, babies kidnapped. But no culprit has ever said he is sorry. Nobody. No offender has confessed, not one helped with the investigation. There are still lots of mass graves, marked with N.N., because nobody knows whose bodies are lying there. The non-governmental Argentine Team of Forensic Antropology (EAAF) is still trying to identify people. Society as a whole has become victim of the dictatorship. So I say: yes to justice, no to amnesty.

What do the relatives of the disappeared need on a personal level to find peace and leave behind this experience of violence?
We need justice. The children want to see the killers of their parents in jail. For me personally – the pain of losing my daughter will always be there, forever. But I have been looking for my grandson for 35 years. Finding him, at last, will be my reparation. Justice and truth is the reparation.

How did you find the strength to keep on fighting for all these years?
It’s for the love of my daughter Laura. She was killed two months after her baby son was born. She was only 23 years old; she had her whole life to live. I’m proud of her because she opposed the dictatorship. Her tortured body was returned to us after she was shot. That was unusual. Most parents never saw their children again, not even dead. When we buried her, I promised her that I would look for her child, my grandchild, every single day, as long as I was alive. And this is what I have been doing. I’m very happy for all the grandchildren who we found, 106, up to now. The other grandmothers in the organisation give me strength. Our energy comes through love, not seeking revenge.

What would you recommend to other women in similar situations in other countries?
Let me say first that all dictatorships are terrible, never mind where, because the state is killing its own citizens. Each country has its own special history, so the situation might not be comparable. But I have seen that women who suffer manage to pull an enormous strength from love. I can only appeal to all women, whose loved ones were kidnapped by the state or armed groups: organise! Don’t sit crying alone at home. Join other people and fight for justice.