The Grandmothers of the Disappeared and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo:

As you will see in this blog, the word “Disappeared” is used as a noun, as an adjective and as a verb, and it has a very specific use and meaning in the context of what took place during the junta.

Sure, you could use “dead,” “presumed dead,” “missing” or any other variety of terms, but Disappeared has its own special meaning in Argentina because the victims literally disappeared, most often never to be found again. Is there some level of hope in the use of that word? Yes and no.

As time passes, the chances of locating one of the Disappeared fades to zero, mostly with no tangible evidence of what ever happened to that person. But for our first group, The Grandmothers of the Disappeared, hope is alive and well.

The Grandmothers of the Disappeared: A Current and Ongoing Hope
The first Wednesday meeting was with the Grandmothers of the Disappeared. Like the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, they all have sons or daughters who were disappeared, but they were disappeared either with small children or expecting children at the time of their disappearance.

As such, the goal of the Grandmothers of the Disappeared is to locate their grandchildren, many of whom were adopted out to military families. 92 of the 500 lost grandchildren have been found, with two new ones found the week before we arrived in Argentina, so the Grandmothers’ mission is an ongoing effort that is still producing results.

By way of background, the Disappearances took place during the tyranny of the military junta, which came to power in 1976 in Argentina’s sixth military coup. The junta lasted until 1983, when democracy was re-established, primarily precipitated by Argentina’s ill-fated occupation of the Falklands (Malvinas in Spanish) in 1982 and their subsequent defeat by Great Britain only 72 days later, a complete disaster for the Argentinean navy. The invasion of the Falklands/Malvinas was staged to distract the Argentinean people from the continually weakening economy, but ended up being the “fortunate disaster” that brought down the military dictatorship.

The Grandmother whom we met was Mrs. Roa. She is one of about 40 current members, but they are getting older and fewer as the months and years pass. Mrs. Roa stated that their primary mission is to locate the stolen children of the Disappeared because they believe that it is a basic human right to know your own identity.

Mrs. Roa’s son and daughter-in-law were abducted along with their eight-month-old daughter, who was raised by a colonel and his wife. They changed her name and altered her birthday to alleviate any traces of her pervious identity.

Mrs. Roa, though, is one of the fortunate Grandmothers of the Disappeared: she was reunited with her granddaughter, Claudia Victoria, eight years ago when a random tip came from a janitor who retired and felt that he could reveal the sudden appearance of this child 24 years ago in the building where he worked.

It is, of course, very fortunate that he called Mrs. Roa with this information, but I cannot understand how and why someone could sit on a piece of information like that for such a long period of time solely for the sake of job preservation. Nonetheless, they are reunited, and that is the important part.

Claudia changed her name back to “Claudia” and had many questions about her parents and her newly-found family. Her father and mother were both psychology students at the university and were politically active. When they were abducted, he was 23, and she was 21. Neither was ever seen nor heard from again.

I asked Mrs. Roa if she speaks with Claudia about her adopted family, and her response was short and simple, “no, never.” From the beginning of their reunited lives, Mrs. Roa has always maintained a pledge to not ask about the adopted parents and considers that a part of Claudia’s life that is none of her business.

I also asked if Claudia had been reunited with her other grandmother, but Mrs. Roa knew her and said that her daughter’s abduction was too much for her and she had taken her own life two years after the abduction. However, she was reunited with her maternal grandfather, who is now 80.

Even though she found her granddaughter eight years ago, Mrs. Roa is still at the office of the Grandmothers of the Disappeared because each of the Grandmothers feels joy and solidarity with the other Grandmothers every time a grandchild is found. Although 25 years have passed since the end of the junta, hope is still very alive for the Grandmothers of the Disappeared, with two fresh victories, just one week ago.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: Strength and Solidarity When Hope Has Faded

The second meeting was with the best known and most politically active groups for the Disappeared: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. We met with five of their members, including their current president, and they went through their respective stories, each horrible and moving. They look like anyone’s sweet little grandmother, all very handsomely attired as if going to a business meeting, but this is their business and it has been for the last 32 years.

The fifth to offer her story was Mrs. Morea, the quiet, small lady in the green sweater at the far right of the panel. She told her story, or even worse, stories, and by the time she was finished, she was sitting before a sea of speechless faces. Her story was awful, and it got more horrific as the details unfolded.

The military police arrived at about 1 am on July 28, 1976, and they always came in plain clothes and Ford Falcons. They took Mrs. Morea’s daughter, Susanna, along with her husband and his mother. Since both her daughter and son-in-law were architects, Mrs. Morea went to police repeatedly to ask why they had been taken, but the consistent response was that they knew nothing.

After the fall of the junta, a mass burial site was discovered about 30 kilometers from Buenos Aires at a place called Fatima where the “Massacre of Fatima” had taken place. A group of forensic anthropologists were sent to the site, and Mrs. Morea’s daughter’s bones were the first case of positive DNA identification from the Massacre. Shortly thereafter, the son-in-law’s remains were also identified, and they had a proper funeral and burial for the two, now next to each other for eternity.

When the perpetrators of the massacre were on trial, Mrs. Morea found out that her daughter and son-in-law had been tortured with electricity, rape, and sleep deprivation for twenty days, and then killed. Further, it came out in the trial that the daughter’s mother-in-law had been taken on one of the Death Flights, where they simply loaded up the planes, flew out to sea, and threw people out.

Of the five military perpetrators of the Massacre of Fatima, one fled the country, one was already dead, two were convicted, and the worst one was set free due to “lack of evidence” and his claim that he was not on duty. He may be retried, but that is presently pending further investigation.

For her daughter’s funeral, the best friend flew in from Italy and broke it to Mrs. Morea that the daughter had been pregnant at the time of her disappearance, but had lost the baby during electrical shock torture. The only point of happiness in her story is her other daughter’s story, which, however, holds its own tragedy. That daughter’s husband was also one of the Disappeared and was never found, but she was pregnant at the time of his Disappearance, and Mrs. Morea is left with her daughter and a grandson, who is now 31.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are exceptional and strong women who all say they received great support from their husbands. When they began their civil disobedience back in the 1970s, they were often derided with catcalls of “las Locas” (the crazy women) by passersby, but have since gained great respect in Argentinean society as a model for strength, tenacity, and political activism.

You can see them circle the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday at 3:30 p.m., still wearing their white head shawls that have covered their heads since their first march in 1977.