E N D P I E C E
Children of the disappeared
As the generals in Argentina confess to murder and torture, Amaranta Wright meets
a brother and sister who are still trying to come to terms with the fate of their parents.
Martin sat in a downtown Buenos Aires bar staring at the front page of the newspaper. Army chief General Balza had accepted ‘institutional responsibility’ for torture and murder during the military government. ‘It’s become a circus, all these confessions,’ said Martin. ‘What does it all mean now, after so long? Pardons have been given. Nothing will happen. People have others things to worry about. I’m not interested. I’ve got on with my own life.’
One day, in May 1978, five-year-old Martin and his younger sister Adriana were about to tuck into a family lunch – not an everyday occurrence since their parents were often away organizing manoeuvres for the People’s Revolutionary Army, the ERP. Deafening thuds penetrated the door. Their father knew why they had come. He dropped the children on the bed and searched for his gun. The last memory Martin has of his parents is of their being dragged out of the door, hooded and struggling.
Martin also criticizes the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the ‘mothers of the disappeared’, who, like his own grandmother, tried to keep the hope of their eventual return alive. ‘They go on as if their sons and daughters were walking around in Paris or some place, waiting for the Government to fetch them. But they are all dead. All 33,000. And nothing can be done.’
Martin’s ‘reality’ discourse is what most Argentinians have been running away from. Perhaps it is only now, with the admissions from the Army, that the ‘disappeared’ can become ‘dead’ and the debate that’s been swept under the carpet opened up.
Martin shook his head at the suggestion. Lists of the dead, details of the tortured, cannot retrieve lost memories. ‘Many of them believed and some of them fought for things that we can learn something from. They stood up against injustice and sacrificed their lives. What disappoints me most is that so much blood has been spilled and nobody has learned anything. People are still scared and won’t stand up for their rights.’
His sister Adriana, now 19, was waiting for me later that evening at her home, a lodging house for young women. Spread out around her were clippings, books, photos, documents and pamphlets – the product of a year’s frantic search for her identity. ‘So you talked to my brother?’ she says. ‘He’s very cynical. He closes his mind when it comes to this subject. Yes, he’ll shout “My dad was a guerrillero”, but he will never talk to me about what happened. As far as I can see he doesn’t want to know the truth.’
Adriana only became aware of the truth a year ago. Since then she’s been on the rampage, trying to get hold of information – from the orphanage where the police had left her and from anyone who knew her parents. ‘The truth is everything to me. I have been living in everyone else’s fear, secrecy and lies. My parents were a closed book. No-one admitted that they were dead, but neither would they talk about them, to keep their presence alive.’
When she was 15 she was brought to Buenos Aires by her aunt, who presented her with the first morsels of the truth. ‘Even then, what I knew was only her version of what had happened. I couldn’t bear the confusion. I’ve been through moments when I’ve wanted to kill myself, to get rid of the pain of this vacuum. I can’t remember anything. I don’t even have pictures of my parents with me. Anything about them is valuable to me. It’s all I have.’
Despite many rejections, Adriana has hunted down her missing memories from old friends of the family: how her mother fixed her hair, what she wore, how she laughed, the things she liked to do. Her eyes widen and glow with pride as she talks about her parents.
Balza’s confession makes her feel better. ‘At least it justifies our cause to those who thought we were mad. Most of all the Madres. They have been sorely abused. I’ve been active for a year, but they have suffered for 19 years in the face of indifference and injustice. That would really have driven me mad. Then, one day, the oppressors admit to everyone: “In fact, the Madres were right.” And you think, “finally!”’
She tries to understand why her brother won’t admit there is a personal wound to be healed. ‘Perhaps the pain for Martin is too great,’ she suggests. ‘He remembers what happened. My father taught him things about being a fighter and being committed. I have pictures drawn by Martin in the orphanage. They’re all of soldiers and flags. He idolized his father and was then abandoned by him. Whenever I’ve tried to talk to him about it he’s flown off the handle. It’s easier for him to deal with it through scepticism.’
Martin has his ideals, though. He guards them like the brave soldier in his pictures. He plans to start an ‘alternative’ school teaching self-sufficiency in a small town in the interior, ‘where I know I’m needed’.
Adriana, meanwhile, has found comfort from a Protestant church group which she joined after her aunt renounced responsibility for her. ‘They gave me the affection I lacked,’ she says. ‘Most of all, they accompanied me through the aggression and madness that nobody else could cope with.’
Now, working as a nurse, she feels stronger than ever and is deeply committed to the cause of human rights. ‘I know I can’t expect much from the justice system. But fighting for truth, if not for myself, is what I owe my parents.’
A year ago Amaranta Wright returned to Buenos Aires, her birthplace, for the first time. She currently writes for the Buenos Aires Herald.
CAMERA PRESS (PUCCIANO)
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995