Searching for the disappeared

‘And then I saw it: across the street, the soldiers raised their guns and pointed them at us, waiting for the order to fire,” said…

‘And then I saw it: across the street, the soldiers raised their guns and pointed them at us, waiting for the order to fire,” said Juanita Pargament.

“We were 80 mothers, in front of the government building with the photos of our missing children — nothing more.”

The diminutive old woman had fire in her eyes, recalling the scene that occurred 30 years before.

Pargament is a member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentine mothers whose children were “disappeared” during the military junta’s Dirty War.

The standoff that she spoke of was just one of the many protests organized by the mothers in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires.

And it wasn’t the first time, nor the last, that this group of ordinary, middle-aged women looked down the barrel of a military gun.

“We stood in the rain for two hours holding our photos and they didn’t do it!” said Pargament, slamming her fist down onto the desk, making her bracelets rattle.

“We were never afraid. Never.”

After the 1976 military coup, agents of the Argentine government abducted thousands of men and women for the crime of “subversion.”

The government later admitted that more than 9,000 of those they kidnapped are still unaccounted for.

The mothers and other human rights groups assert the number is closer to 30,000.

These people were taken to secret detention centres throughout the country where they were tortured, raped, beaten and murdered. Many of the bodies were hidden away in mass graves. Others were flown out far enough over the Rio de la Plata and dumped into the sea.

Some of the victims were still alive when they were taken on these “death flights.”

The dictatorship called it the process of national reorganization.

It is now known as the Guerra Sucia — the Dirty War.

I went to visit the mothers at their head office in front of Buenos Aires’ congress buildings.

However, the scene that greeted me outside the subway was apocalyptic.

The streets were empty and littered with millions of white flyers that blew into little drifts along the curbs.

To the left stood a large group of police, in riot gear, blocking any oncoming traffic with large metal barriers.

To the right pulsed a throng of hundreds of protesters, all dressed in white, beating on drums, chanting and waving flags.

I picked up a flyer off the ground. It read, “Don’t let them rob our future.”

It was a protest against the government’s recent plan to nationalize Argentina’s pension fund.

But there were other protesters as well.

Some held signs calling for a tougher stance against poverty.

Another group appeared to be a teachers’ union.

The protests are commonplace in a nation that believes in the power of taking to the streets.

It was in this politically volatile square that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a glaring example of the power of protest, chose to open their office.

“In March of ’76, the military took power and started an indiscriminate, ferocious repression of anyone that opposed them,” said Pargament, banging on the desk again.

“We mothers didn’t know about politics — some of us didn’t even know that our sons and daughters were opposed to the military government — but we knew the government took our children and they didn’t come back.”

The majority of Argentines turned a blind eye to the kidnappings believing the victims to be radical subversives and terrorists.

In fact, many of the disappeared were students, doctors and artists.

Some wealthy men and women made the mistake of owning land and homes that police and government agents wanted for themselves.

“Something distinct grew in each mother, a strength,” said Pargament.

“We took to the street early in the morning, coming home late at night, spending the whole day knocking on the doors of the military people, looking for our sons and daughters.

“But they said they had no knowledge of any kidnapping nor where our children might be.”

Being devout Catholics, many of the mothers then turned to the church.

However, they were turned away, told that there children were terrorists and couldn’t be helped.

“We told the priests, ‘You knew these children! They grew up playing on the steps of these churches, confessing to you and talking with you,’” said Pargament.

“When the military did this the representative of the Vatican didn’t say anything!

“The Vatican helped sign the death sentence for everyone in those concentration camps.”

There were 300 concentration camps within the capital city of Buenos Aires alone, said Pargament.

“They were everywhere — concentration camps where they took people and tortured, raped and killed them and threw them into the ocean,” she said.

“Thirty thousand people disappeared! Two generations of young people — 1.5 million people were forced to flee the country.”

Visiting the different military institutions, police stations, courthouses and churches, the mothers began to notice one another, said Pargament.

“We began to talk to one another: ‘And you who are you missing? Three of your children? And you, your pregnant daughter? And you, your only son?’ And all of us, searching all day long.”

Then one of the women suggested that they all go together to the Plaza de Mayo, the square in front of the presidential palace known as the Casa Rosada.

“We thought, ‘That’s where the people are that know where they have our children,” said Pargament.

“It seemed like a smart idea.”

The mothers first went on a Saturday, but changed the weekly demonstration to Thursday when shops, businesses and the presidential palace would be open and they’d receive more notice.

They circled around the square for half an hour and then dispersed.

“That’s how we began our fight and that’s when people started to say, ‘Hey, there’s those crazy women,’” said Pargament.

“We stayed there until they got tired of seeing us.”

When the military dictatorship “got tired of seeing” the women, it barred them from the plaza and threatened them with the same fate as their sons and daughters.

Thirteen people associated with the mothers were kidnapped or arrested during that time, eight of whom never returned, said Pargament.

One of these who disappeared was founding member Azucena Villaflor.

Her remains, along with two other disappeared mothers, were discovered and identified in 2005.

Her ashes are now buried in the Plaza de Mayo.

Two nuns were also among the group’s supporters who were abducted. One of these nuns, Lione Duquet, was a French citizen. This abduction sparked outrage from the international community, said Pargament.

“Finally, the world had opened its eyes to what was happening.”

After a long period of meeting only in churches, the mothers became fed up and bravely marched on the plaza one Thursday. They circled around once and then dispersed.

“The next Thursday we went around twice and that is how we won back the plaza,” said Pargament.

“And we’ve kept it to this day. Come rain, cold, heat or whatever. We don’t miss a Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo.”

In 1983 the military “got tired of robbing and killing” and handed power over to a democratically elected government, said Pargament.

However, subsequent governments failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the disappearances.

Those who were tried for their crimes received pardons.

This changed in 2003, when the mothers found a more sympathetic ear in the government of Nestor Kirchner.

Kirchner had friends who were disappeared and was nearly abducted himself, said Pargament.

The new president agreed to meet with the women, and repealed the laws that had protected the former leaders of the military junta.

On January 26, 2006, the mothers made what they called their final annual March of Resistance around the Plaza de Mayo, in support of the new government’s initiatives to respect all those that went missing.

The mothers retain the Plaza de Mayo, however, and march every Thursday without fail in support of other social causes.

Another group, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was formed shortly after the fall of the military government, to search for the children of the women who were pregnant when they disappeared.

These children were routinely put up for adoption or raised by members of the police and military.

To date, the grandmothers have succeeded in returning 31 children to their biological families.

The original mothers’ group split into two factions.

Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo — Founding Line focuses on legislation, recovering remains and bringing ex-officials to justice.

The second faction, The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Association, of which Pargament is a member, adopted the more radical views of many of their children.

This can be seen in the Mothers’ repeated support of the guerilla group FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

They have also denounced the United States for teaching the military how to torture and stage the coup at the infamous School of the Americas in Panama and have published a book of the writings of Saddam Hussein.

The mothers don’t want museums or statues to be constructed in remembrance of their sons and daughters because “they speak death,” said Pargament.

“We defend life.”

The mothers’ association has started its own public university, which teaches 20 subjects including history of the people and radical political theory.

They also teach a “revolutionary cooking class” — teaching the poor to cook healthy, economic meals.

The mothers do a lot of work in Argentina’s villa miserias, shanty towns where hundreds of thousands of people live in abject poverty.

The association takes medicine to the villas, and has set up programs to teach its inhabitants to read and write.

They have also started a program that teaches the people how to build apartment housing and provide materials, similar to Habitat for Humanity.

“We do it in the name of our beautiful children,” said Pargament.

“We learned what our children wanted to do, which was bring about revolutionary change in many things that are wrong with this country.”

Pargament did not want to tell her own story, how her own child had disappeared.

“We don’t do that here because we’ve consolidated our motherhood,” she said.

“We don’t say that they took one from you and three from you and on and on like that.

“All of the disappeared were intelligent, beautiful, capable people and we talk and fight the same amount for all of them.”

“I’ve been in this fight since ’76!” she continued.

“Do you know how old I am? How old do you think I am?”

I thought it best not to venture a guess.

“I’m 96 years old!” she said with pride.

“All of the mothers are around 80 years and still we continue our fight.

“That’s what makes us different.”

Former Yukon News reporter Chris Oke is now a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.