Sunday, October 11, 2015

Children of Argentina’s ‘Disappeared’ Reclaim Past, With Help






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Where is My Grandchild?

Estela de Carlotto has spent nearly four decades searching for her grandson, one of the 500 babies who disappeared after their mothers were taken by the military regime in Argentina in the 1970’s.
 By RetroREPORT on Publish DateOctober 11, 2015. Watch in Times Video »

Grandmothers, an old saying goes, are angels in training. If so, one contingent that has had a great deal of practice can be found in Argentina.
The chief pursuit of these women is more temporal than celestial. With focused anger, they have spent more than three decades seeking to unravel and, when possible, correct one of the more shocking human rights outrages of modern times.


This installment of Retro Report, a series of video documentaries chronicling major news stories of the past and their abiding consequences, delves into the theft of babies by the military junta that ruthlessly ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Those were the years of the dirty war, as it was called. Thousands upon thousands of Argentines — at least 10,000 and possibly as many as 30,000, according to some human rights groups — became los desaparecidos, the disappeared. “Desaparecido” was a word that politically attuned people around the world came to recognize instantly, even if they spoke almost no Spanish.


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A Stolen Life

The story of one man’s search for his identity after his parents disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship.
 By RetroREPORT on Publish DateOctober 11, 2015. Watch in Times Video »

Men and women whom the junta deemed leftist subversives were abducted by death squads, most never to be seen again. They were routinely tortured in secret detention centers and then murdered, their bodies cremated or buried in mass graves or dropped from airplanes into the Atlantic Ocean. The junta described its victims as terrorists, but its definition was, to put it mildly, expansive. “One becomes a terrorist not only by killing with a weapon or setting a bomb, but also by encouraging others through ideas that go against our Western and Christian civilization,” the junta’s leader, Jorge Rafael Videla, said in 1977. He died two years ago in a Buenos Aires prison, where he had been serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity.
The junta’s brutality had a twist: Some of the kidnapped women were pregnant. A few had small children. The pregnant captives were kept alive only long enough to give birth. Then, as described in a 2004 article in the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, the junta embarked on “an unprecedented and systematic plan to steal and sell the babies of its victims.” The mothers were killed. Many fathers were, too. And the babies — about 500 of them, in a widely accepted estimate — were handed or sold to military families and to others considered “politically acceptable.” Birth certificates were falsified. The infants’ true identities were effectively erased. In some instances, they went to the very people who had killed their parents.
As this nightmare unfolded, two Argentine rights groups came into being in 1977: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the mothers and the grandmothers of a central square in Buenos Aires. Every Thursday, they marched in silent protest around the plaza. The mothers sought to learn the fates of their dead children, the grandmothers the whereabouts of their stolen grandchildren, known as los desaparecidos con vida, the living disappeared.
Not everyone was even aware at first that a grandchild existed. One such abuela was Estela Barnes de Carlotto, a school principal. She knew that the eldest of her four children, Laura, had disappeared toward the end of 1977. Only later did she learn that her politically active daughter had been pregnant. Laura was murdered after giving birth to a boy in June 1978. Still later, Ms. de Carlotto found out that the baby’s father was another activist, Walmir Montoya. He, too, was killed, and his remains were not identified until 2009.
Ms. de Carlotto, who turns 85 on Oct. 22, joined Las Abuelas in 1979 and became its president 10 years later. Her story is central to the Retro Report video. Identifying and finding missing grandchildren turned into her life’s mission, with every success representing one more blow against the murderous junta. “Each case,” she has said in interviews, “is a triumph of truth over lies, horrors and deceit.”


Continue reading the main storyVideo

Your Sisters Are Looking For You

Flavia Battistiol has turned to social media in hopes of being reunited with the sibling who disappeared in 1977, when the military junta ruled Argentina.
 By RetroREPORT on Publish DateOctober 11, 2015. Watch in Times Video »

Yet as stolen babies were tracked down one by one, 113 of them by May 2014, the search for her own grandchild proved futile. Then, suddenly, in the summer of 2014, there was a turnaround. Genetic testing proved conclusively that a musician, Ignacio Hurban, was Laura’s child. Given Ms. de Carlotto’s national prominence, the discovery was a triumph that resonated emotionally across Argentina.
Mr. Hurban had long wondered if he was truly the biological son of the couple who reared him from infancy, farmers who had received him in 1978 from a powerful landowner with ties to the junta. He did not seem like them at all, either in appearance or in cultural interests. A year ago, on his 36th birthday, he learned that he had in fact been adopted. Wondering if he might be one of the living disappeared, he had a blood test. After the results confirmed his parentage, making him the 114th grandchild to be identified, he changed his name to Ignacio Montoya Carlotto. Since then, three more such identifications have been made, bringing the total to 117.
Forensic genetics, the key to discovering many of the lost grandchildren, has proved an indispensable human rights tool. Advances in DNA analysis make it possible to match a person with his or her biological grandparent; that has been happening in Argentina since 1984. In 1987, the National Bank of Genetic Data was created there, the first of its kind in the world, and it now stores several hundred family profiles. Roughly 10,000 young adults (babies snatched during the dirty war are typically now in their mid- to late 30s) have had themselves tested for possible matches. In that manner, dozens of them have found their biological grandparents.
In part because of the Argentine experience, international accords now recognize certain fundamental human rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989, asserts that nations must “respect the right of the child to preserve his or her identity,” a requirement that extends to one’s name and family relationships. In 2006, the General Assembly affirmed that a “forced disappearance” that is part of a systematic attack on a civilian population qualifies as a crime against humanity.

The identification of abducted Argentine babies has not been without pain. Some children, on discovering their true identities, have resisted leaving the only parents they know. Also, some adoptive parents have been criminally charged, with the couple who reared Mr. Montoya Carlotto now also facing that risk. His newly found grandmother, focusing on such couples in general, told Retro Report, “Without exception, they have to be brought to justice.”
Then again, some grandchildren are comforted to learn that they were not abandoned by their biological parents, as they long believed. “Initially, most victims experienced psychological shock when their true identity was revealed,” Dr. Victor B. Penchaszadeh, a once-exiled Argentine geneticist who returned home several years ago, wrote this year in The Journal of Community Genetics. But in time, Dr. Penchaszadeh said, “knowledge of the truth, painful as it was, was emotionally liberating from the perversity, lies, concealment and violence that in many cases had surrounded their rearing.”
Ms. de Carlotto vowed to continue the search for those still missing and “for truth and justice.” She will do this, she said, “while I have life in me.” But she is well aware that the clock is ticking. Grandmothers may be angels in training. But unlike celestial messengers, they are not immortal.

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