Every Thursday afternoon they gathered in Plaza de Mayo. Even in the heaviest April downpours, when the Argentinian square was almost deserted and the pavements reflected the gaudy pink of the Presidential Palace, hundreds of women gathered in protest. White headscarfs covered their heads, and in their hands and on their chests were faint photographs of young men and women: their children that were taken. There are no photographs of the grandchildren they still hope to find. These grandchildren are in their thirties now, the babies of the Dirty War.
At least 30,000 people deemed left-wing ‘radicals’ by the Argentinian government were abducted between 1976 and 1983. Justified by the government as a ‘National Reorganization Process’, it was a period marked by widespread political repression, torture, forced disappearance and extra-judicial killing, including ‘death flights’, where victims were bound and dropped from planes into the Atlantic. Most of the victims were young activists, union members or students, a third of them women.
The grandmothers have never stopped searching for this lost generation. Nor have they stopped calling for justice for those behind the abductions
The sexual and gender-based violence inflicted by the junta has since been deemed by activists as genocidal, aimed at destroying the reproductive capacity of female ‘dissidents’. In designated camps and wards, women were subjected to rape, the mutilation of reproductive organs, forced abortion and the systematic abduction of infants and babies born inside the detention camps. An estimated 200 children were born in captivity and pregnant women forced to give birth while gagged, blindfolded and bound. As many as 500 children are thought to have been taken and given to families with close ties to the government or the military to raise as their own.
The grandmothers, many of whose only memory of their grandchildren is the swell of their daughter’s stomach before they disappeared, have never stopped searching for this lost generation. Nor have they stopped calling for justice for those behind the abductions.
A powerful voice against impunity
Beginning as a group of just 14 women, their weekly vigil outside the Presidential Palace was joined by thousands of ordinary women, whose shared bereavement and loss transformed them into the single most powerful voice against the impunity of those responsible for the seven years of violence. Their vocal, public, female-led action shattered the oppressive silence of the government at the time. In the years that followed, they struggled hard against a series of governmental pardons that sought to offer amnesty to those involved in the name of reconciliation.
In 1997, they set up a DNA-testing programme with the National Bank of Genetic Data, banking their own blood so that anyone born between 1976 and 1983 who doubted their parentage could come for screening. One hundred and five of those children, now all in their thirties, have since been found.
And now there is some justice for those lost years. On 6 July 2012, the man responsible for masterminding the systematic abduction of the babies more than 30 years ago, former president Jorge Rafael Videla, was given a 50-year sentence for his role.
Eight co-defendants, including the dictator Reynaldo Bignone and former navy officer Jorge Acosta, were also convicted.
The courtroom, packed with the families of the victims, heard testimonies from 20 young adults, many of whom had recently been forced to confront the fact that they had been brought up by people who had been complicit in their parents’ death and disappearances.
Videla, now 86 years old, is already serving life sentences for crimes against humanity. Given that he will not live to see out this most recent sentence, nor suffer any additional years in prison, the ruling may seem to some as little more than symbolic justice.
The mothers and grandmothers of those that were murdered or disappeared, however, have always maintained that there is both a personal and national value in the legal recognition of responsibility. In response to the judgments, Estela de Carlotto, President of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said: ‘It’s healing for all society to know that they are being judged, condemned, and they will continue to be judged and condemned until the last crime that can be attributed to them.’
‘It’s healing for all society to know that [the perpetrators] are being judged, and will continue to be judged and condemned until the last crime that can be attributed to them’
The final collective march of the women in Plaza de Mayo was held in 2006; their focus turned to the evidence gathering that contributed so much to the convictions last week. While the historic square is left to tourists and business people, the women, once dubbed as ‘Las Locos’ [the Crazies] by Videla’s military, have shown that they can hold their ground.
To those who doubt and those who are yet to be found, their website sends a message: ‘Our grandchildren have not been abandoned. They have the right to recover their roots and their history; they have relatives who are constantly engaged in searching for them.’Libby Powell