“Frightened for generations”

Three decades after the end of the military dictatorship in Argentina, its cruel legacy is still alive. The militaries have abducted, tortured and killed at least 30,000 people who were suspected of opposing their regime – and adopted their young children. Thus, more than 400 young people of my generation are still living with the murderers of their real parents (or their complices). We met one woman who recently regained her identity.

published on Peace Boat website, 2/2/2013 >>

In 2008, Catalina de Sanctis (left) discovered, that her parents were abducted, tortured and killed during the military dictatorship in Argentina. She shares this lot with 500 young adults
“My name is Catalina de Sanctis and I regained my identity in 2008.” This sentence, spoken by a young woman during Peace Boat’s first meeting with the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, left participants with open mouths. Seemingly simple, it summarizes the struggle of three generations in Argentina who strive to unveil the legacy of the military dictatorship, which three decades after its end still moulds Argentinian society. For the first 30 years of her life Catalina de Sanctis lived as “Maria Carolina” in the house of a former military and his wife. It wasn’t until then that she found out that her alleged parents were accomplices in the murder of her real parents. Between 1976 and 1983, the Argentinian military abducted, tortured and killed at least 30,000 people who were suspected of opposing their regime. They are remembered as los desaparecidos in allusion to a statement by dictator Videla who once claimed that they had simply “disappeared”. Many of the young activists had small children or were pregnant at the time of their abduction – like Catalina’s mother. While her father was tortured and killed right away, her mother was kept in a secret prison during her pregnancy, only to be murdered two days after giving birth.
During the military dictatorship, the mothers of the disappeared started weekly marches on the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires. Their protests raised worldwide attention on the issue.

One of the horrors of the military dictatorship in Argentina was that children of political prisoners were appropriated by families loyal to the regime. But the oppressors did not expect the reaction of their families. “When my daughter didn’t return, I started to look for her myself – as many mothers did”, Estela de Carlotto told Peace Boat participants during a meeting. The president of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo is a public figure in Argentina and the world; her organisation was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 and she regularly speaks in international conferences. Although in her eighties, she is still energetic and rhetorically versed. “Of course we were afraid, because we knew that they might also imprison us. But our love as mothers proved to be stronger.” They were knocking on the doors of judges, the police and the military – first each for herself, but soon more and more organized. Since 1977 they silently circled the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday in front of the Casa Rosada (the Executive Office of the President), wearing a diaper and later a head scarf as symbols of their robbed children and grandchildren. These marches gave them the name of Madres/ Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo and drew the attention of international media towards the issue. Peace Boat participants visited the historical square, which has been the setting for many protests and festivities since the May Revolution and Argentina’s independence that took place there in 1810 and 1816.

During Peace Boat’s meeting with the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, their president Estella de Carlotto (centre) gave a pañuelo, one of their symbolic head scarves, to the organization – a big honour for Peace Boat

“We took special precautions” Estela de Carlotto remembers with a broad smile. “Once we met in a cafeteria and pretended to celebrate our birthdays, while we were exchanging material and information under the table. As women we were first underestimated, but we soon became more and more famous.” In 1977, a group of Madres was arrested during a reunion in a church. Members of both organizations traveled all over the world to raise awareness of the human right violations committed by the regime; they were supported by exiled Argentinians and renowned NGOs like Amnesty International and the Red Cross. In 1979 the Abuelas found the first two children of desaparecidos; until today 107 young adults have regained their true identity. Within the last years, the Abuelas have developed into a large institution with more than 100 employees, comprising departments for reception, investigation and press, psychologists to attend the grandchildren and their families as well as a nation-wide DNA bank, which makes it easier to find biological relatives. “When a grandmother has found her grandchild, she usually stays with the organization” emphasizes Buscarita Roa, whose granddaughter was found in 2000 by the Abuelas. “After so many years they are all our grandchildren. We turned our grandmotherhood into a communal experience.”

As a guest educator on Peace Boat, the Argentinian film maker Myriam Angueira talked about the legacy of the military dictatorship in Argentina and taught participants about Argentinian culture (photo: mate tea ceremony

Until today the Madres and Abuelas drive the struggle of civil society to end the legacy of the dictatorship. “These women awakened my political consciousness”, Peace Boat’s guest educator Myriam Angueira acknowledges during the exchange tour. The documentary film maker grew up in the 80s and 90s – a time, when the confrontation between neoliberal politicians, who tried to wipe out the memory of the “Dirty War”, and a society deeply affected by the dictatorship led to clashes in the streets all over Argentina. With a background in advertising, she eventually turned to film making together with the collective fronteracine and started winning awards one year afterwards. “We walked into the front lines of these conflicts with a camera, feeling like Che Guevara”, she remembers. In sympathy with the “piquetero” movement – workers, who blocked the streets as they were demanding their salaries – they called their style “cine piquetero”, Piquetero Cinema. “20 años, 20 poemas, 20 artistas” (“20 years, 20 poems, 20 artists”) was the first film she collaborated in; it portrays mothers and grandmothers of desaparecidos in the northern provinces of Jujuy and Tucumán. Whereas the film was shown in festivals all around the world, Argentina censored it until 1999, as Myriam Angueira said. “One province rejected it even longer, because its governor was among the oppressors during the dictatorship.”

Pink hibiscus grows in front of the windows, behind which 5,000 people were tortured during the military dictatorship in Argentina. A Peace Boat study programme visited the “clandestine detention center” of the ESMA in Buenos Aires, now a museum

Although the dictatorship was over in 1983, its legacy continued for more than two decades – and today it is all too easy to forget. When Peace Boat participants strolled along the peaceful avenues of the former ESMA compound in Buenos Aires, the illusion of a day in the countryside was perfect. Pink hibiscus grows in front of the windows, behind which 5,000 activists have been tortured and prepared for their killing – people like Catalina de Sanctis’ parents and Estela de Carlotto’s daughter. They disappeared behind the iron gate and left it only once again: on the way to the Aeroparque, a military airport, where the captives were put into planes and thrown out over the Rio de la Plata. It was the largest of Argentina’s 500 so called “centros clandestinos” (clandestine centres). However the whole operation hasn’t been as secret as the name suggests: People were abducted in public spaces and the centre was located in a diplomatic district of Buenos Aires, surrounded by skyscrapers. “This was part of the strategy of ‘state terrorism’ which was meant to frighten the civil society”, Myriam Angueira says. “Many people complain that young Argentinians are not as dedicated to politics as their generation is in neighbouring Latin American countries. But the experience of the desaparecidos lives on in our subconscious, it has frightened us for generations.”

Two film teams documented the memorable first encounter of Peace Boat and the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, a team of German documentary film makers and a local TV Channel

Until 2007 the ESMA was inaccessible to the public and still used as a marine training centre, just as during the dictatorship. “Gracias por devolvernos la patria” is written on a panel with a picture of president Cristina Kirchner and her husband, the former president Nestor Kirchner – “thanks for giving us back our home country”. It wasn’t until their presidencies that civil society organizations like the Madres and the Abuelas succeeded in their demands to transform it into a memorial space and a museum. Equally the victims had to wait until 2004 before the first oppressors were tried in court. Many have passed away in the meantime without ever being called to account. 400 young adults still continue to live with the lie that the dictatorship has burdened upon their identity. “In 2007 I saw a spot of the Abuelas on television” Catalina de Sanctis remembers. “I was always daydreaming that I might have been adopted, but when I saw this spot, the illusion turned into a certainty. I didn’t ask but told my appropriator right away: ‘I am the daughter of disappeared, right?'” Today she clearly takes distance from the military couple that has raised her. “But it was a hard process”, she reckons. When in 2007 a judge visited her to ask her to do a DNA test, she impulsively fled the country, before she finally decided to come back. In 2010 she found her real family. “I recognized myself in them and understood why I am how I am” she says. “Brainwashing and cutting the roots of a child has nothing to do with love, but with egoism. Why would they have love for a child who is the offspring of people that they tortured and murdered?” With the help of the Abuelas, she has taken her case to court and is currently awaiting the decision. “I was impressed by the love and commitment of the mothers, but the testimony of the granddaughter left an even greater impression upon me” says 23 year old Hayashi Yuuka after the exchange tour. “I wondered what I would feel and how I would react in her situation.” Today the first grandchildren started to collaborate at the Abuelas organisation; they will continue to lead the investigation when the last Abuela passes away. “The power and courage of our children is what has inspired us during all these years”, Estela de Carlotto said. “My daughter Laura was 23 years old, pregnant, and well aware that she was risking her life while struggling for a better future. I have been trying to learn from her example.” She won’t give up until she finds her grandson, who is 34 years old today and has no idea that his real name is Guido de Carlotto.

Addendum: On August 5, 2014 it was revealed that Estela de Carlotto has finally found her grandson! >>