It brings me no pleasure to write this post, let's start with that.
The Buenos Aires Herald reports that last Monday the very first trial of anyone involved in the systematic kidnapping, relocation, and disappearances of some 500 newborns during the 1970's "Dirty War" has begun here in Buenos Aires.
The Abuelas & Madres de los Desaparecidos are women who have tirelessly and fearlessly petitioned the Argentinian government for more than 30 years to learn what happened to their sons and daughters who were disappeared during that dreadful time. These women wear white kerchiefs as a symbol of their movement-- they represent the blindfolds put over the faces of their loved ones when they were kidnapped and executed. Now they wear them on their heads to represent their grief and righteous anger.
I originally thought that the Abuelas referred to the grandmothers of disappeared adults. It turns out I was not fully informed: the Abuelas formed a sister group to shame the government into revealing what happened to the babies born to young women while they were held in detention.
A whole generation of young people from that time, often whose crimes consisted of attending university, and/or having ties to unions and socialist groups, would be picked up off the streets or seized from their homes without warning and held in detention camps, where they would be raped, brutalized, tortured, and sometimes killed.
But perhaps most dehumanizing of all, if a woman was picked up by government thugs and she was pregnant, she would be kept to give birth under these dreadful circumstances. Then her newborn baby would be confiscated.
It is believed that many of the 500+ children born in detention camps were simply killed outright. However, there have been reports that sometimes officers in the military would bring the babies home to raise them as their own. And perhaps most bizarrely, several of these children were put up for adoption and adopted by completely unwitting families. Only through the work of the Abuelas, years later, was it determined who the original parents of the adopted children were and the story of the circumstances how these children came to be put up for adoption.
I find this poster especially moving: her tee-shirt reads "Who Am I?"
The copy reads: "Among all of us, we are looking for you." The Abuelas' campaign highlights the fact that these missing children, adults now, could be anywhere, living amongst ordinary Argentines.
It's worth mentioning that the Abuelas keep a running tally of the children they have identified. Last count was 102.
For an entire generation of Argentines, the legacy from these years remains as a living cloud of doubt and guilt, violence and rupture. For the gentlemen I see in their 50's and 60's, their youth may well have been marred by terror, torture, and paranoia. Or perhaps they were the perpetrators-- are they racked by memories of their guilty deeds? For young people in their 30's, for many of them there must be this eerie question: Where did I come from? Who were my real parents, and where are they now?
Watching what's happening in the Middle East, another part of the word where one part of the population was empowered by the state to terrorize and brutalize the rest of their fellow citizens, I'm struck where Argentina is in the process of reconciliation with these events of a past that is growing ever more distant, but whose participants have not yet fully died out. The Dirty War is not yet a full generation behind us. And because of the policy of confiscating children, there is yet another generation living with this legacy of disruption, dehumanization, and violence.
Of the eight men brought to trial on Monday for the "taking, retaining, hiding, and changing the identities" of 34 children, the two big names, General Vedela and General Bignone, two military dictators of the junta during those years, both are now in their mid-80's. Both are already serving life sentences for their role in issuing the orders to execute and kidnap people during their reign. Also, much to the outrage of the Abuelas, Vedela fell asleep during the court proceedings, resting his head on Bignone's shoulder while he snored.
Justice is sometimes served not with a bang, but with a whimper.