by José Miguez Bonino
A search like many others … and yet with a difference
One of the most infamous chapters in the “Book of Terror” written by our century is the story of the people who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina. In the twenty-three years which have passed since the start of that dictatorship and today, hundreds of thousands of Argentinians have taken to the streets demanding “truth, justice and punishment of the culprits”. The “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” (“Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo”), together with many other human rights organisations, have kept up this protest since the founding of their organisation in 1977. Today, in this short moment of reflection, I would like to mention particularly the grandmothers, for they are an excellent and impressive example, demonstrating in their determination the full meaning of the struggle for human rights. I will explain this in more detail using the story and words of the president and founder member of this organisation, Señora Estela Barnes de Carlotto.
Estela was a teacher, headmistress and mother “” a woman devoted to her work and active within her social sphere, but no political activist. She had other ideas of her contributions to society. In 1977, her daughter Laura was taken from her home by force and carried off to a prisoners’ camp where she gave birth to a son. She was later murdered. This was the beginning of a long search, the search for Guido – the name the parents wanted to give their son “” a search which has continued until this day. But today this search has taken on a new dimension: it has in the meantime become the inquiry into the fate of 400 or more children who were abducted from their homes or born in prison, who are now dead or were sold off or “” in many cases “” handed over to the very people who had abducted and murdered their parents. 230 cases were reported to the police. At present, 62 of them have been solved. The search is still on. It will continue “” says Estela “” “even when we aren’t alive any more, carried on by our children and grandchildren”.
What is so special about this search? What makes it exemplary? Why does it epitomise the struggle for human rights? There are at least three reasons for this.
Firstly there is the fact that these investigations are not solely based on a desire to keep the past alive, to find the culprits and punish them, but they are also intended to contribute to the shaping of the future: “With our children, they stole our present, with our grandchildren they are trying to rob us of our future”, says Estela. For the children had not been abducted at random or in error. Behind all this was a plan, the intention to eradicate both the fight for justice and the ideals of freedom their parents were “” rightly or not – presumed to stand for.
The second reason concerns the most horrifying aspect of these “disappearances” “” the destruction of peoples’ identities “” and thus the destruction of the identity of an entire people. “Everybody is born with a cultural and social heritage which was passed on by previous generations.” The dictatorship claimed that it wanted to make a total cut right through society, blot out history and rewrite it according to its own ideology. The abduction of children “” a plan which was adhered to more methodically here than in any other part of the world “” was one expression of this intention. It had repercussions far beyond specific individual cases: it created a feeling of insecurity experienced by many young people until today. “Could I be one of the ‘robbed children’?” There is something haunting these children, something indefinable but nonetheless alarming. “Young people who have doubts about their origins, because they were adopted or were wrongly entered in the birth registers as a couple’s own children, in their search for their own roots and identity turn to the ‘Grandmothers’. When questioning their identity they thus set a new process rolling, trying to become masters of their own lives and to put an end to their uncertainty.”
This search also had major scientific and psychological repercussions. In the scientific sphere, research centres in Europe and America as well as the most important research centre in Argentina were approached and challenged to develop more precise instruments for the determination of genetic identity “” the analysis of genetic fingerprints as well as various techniques of determining an individual’s genotype which allow a 99.9% identification, even if no data on the parents is available.
A further characteristic of the “Abuelas” shows itself in the context of this scientific dimension. Their search is first and foremost an act of love. “I have never been able to accept hatred and violence”, Estela states. And this attitude is reflected in the actions of the “Abuelas”.
Thus fourteen of the re-discovered children have continued to live with the families who had adopted them – without knowing what had happened before. A connection was, however, forged between their adopted parents and their birth parents’ families, a process which merits particular attention: “The traumatic circumstances both families and children had to suffer, are not repeated, neither when the children return to their birth parents’ families, nor during the phase when confidence and trust are established. This time there are no abductions, this time there is no silence. By talking openly and by relying on a basis of love and legal certainty the children have the chance to forge a natural relationship with their ‘real’ families which “” as we keep seeing again and again “” is sometimes even established during the very first meeting … This gives the children an opportunity gradually to become aware of their own identity… It is a new, very refreshing situation.”
Estela foresees the result: “When the last child will have been handed over, this will have a direct effect on the lives of all children: they will have regained those principles and certainties with which our society and our state are obliged and duty-bound to provide them.”