A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
The historic Plaza de Mayo in the heart of Buenos Aires was calm that afternoon, with people strolling as usual in front of the Argentine government palace known as the Casa Rosada.
But I had gone there after getting a tip that a group of women would be staging a daring protest in opposition to the country's repressive government.
And when I spoke to a few of the women walking around in the area, I found them eager to talk -- serious, and openly critical of the military leaders in a “junta” running almost everything with very tight restrictions.
The junta, led by Army General Jorge Videla as the president, had seized control of all national, state and local government operations, cracked down on labor unions and students, banned organized protests and restricted news media.
Saying what those women did at that time in 1977 was really brave. If heard, they’d have been in serious trouble.
So I revealed that I was a reporter for an international news agency and asked the women to go to my office four blocks away, where it would be safer to continue talking. When we got there, they poured out stories as fast as I could take notes.
They were nervous, defiant, impatient and grieving – caught between hope and despair.
They were wives, mothers and grandmothers of citizens who simply vanished after the junta pledged to eliminate all leftist subversion, deploying army and police forces with orders to defeat armed guerrilla groups and to pursue anyone suspected of supporting them.
Most of the women believed that government forces were responsible for the fate of their missing loved ones, but could not prove it and said that the courts were powerless to help them locate their family members.
The women were a mix of old, young, well-dressed and shabby.
There were poised ladies from elegant neighborhoods, and dumpy housewives from workers’ barrios.
They were united by their loss and by their determination to keep trying till they found their loved ones.
I found out that they gathered every Thursday afternoon in the Plaza de Mayo opposite the government palace known as the Casa Rosada. The goal was to bear witness by their presence, they said, and sometimes they were more than a hundred strong.
Carrying no signs or placards, they spoke softly, but in their voices was an undertone of fury, the rage of those whose only weapon is persistence.
A woman named Hebe Bonafini told me about her 26-year-old son, Jorge, 26, who had been taken away just as he was finishing his studies at a university less than 50 miles from Buenos Aires.
“Neighbors told us four automobiles arrived at the building where he lived and seven men in civilian clothes with guns broke into his apartment,” she said.
“He wasn’t there, so they smashed up the apartment while waiting.. After Jorge came home, neighbors say they saw him dragged out, beaten unconscious and shoved into one of the cars.”
Other women told similar stories of armed men going to a residence in civilian clothes and making an “arrest” after claiming to be from the army or police. Sometimes they were polite, sometimes brutal. Often there was some destruction or robbery of television sets, radios, jewelry, cash, anything of value. Then, after they left, a curtain of silence dropped.
Cristina Goyeneche described what happened to her husband, Hugo, 26, who worked for the State Telephone Company. She said he was seized in the doorway of their home by four men wearing civilian clothes who claimed to be in the army. All her efforts to find Hugo failed.
Rosa Burztejn recalled a night when her family was awakened by some armed men wearing civilian clothes. Her sons Angel, 24, and Daniel, 18, both students, were taken away. “They blindfolded me and stole everything they could lay their hands on,” she told me.
She was unable to find any trace of her sons despite requests for help at police stations, army barracks, the Interior Ministry and other offices.
“First they said, ‘Senora, it’s too soon to know anything,” she said. ”Not long ago, I went to the army again and a colonel told me, ‘Senora, after all this time they must be dead.’”
The women began to see each other when they were at offices asking for help. One day, some of them decided to get together and seek a meeting with President Videla. It didn’t go well, according to Maria Antokoletz, who said her son, Jorge, a human rights lawyer, was seized at his home.
After that, she said, the women began to meet as a group once every week at the Plaza de Mayo and office workers in the area made fun of them, referring to them as “Las Locas,” or insanely mad.
“We are passive, don’t try to provoke incidents,” said Mrs. Antokoletz. “You know it’s forbidden to hold demonstrations under the state of siege decree. But we are going to keep meeting in the plaza and asking to see the president. It’s the only way of bringing pressure.”
Although an Interior Ministry office was set up for the problem of missing persons, the women found it a waste of time.
“If you show up on the appointed date, you get to see a functionary who treats you with total disrespect.” Mrs. Ankoletz said. “They try to joke with you. Senora, he must have run off with some woman, they tell you. Or, Senora, he must be underground. He’s probably gone to Europe secretly to work with the guerrillas abroad, and of course he hasn’t told you.
"The only thing that keeps me going is the hope that he is still alive.”
The women eventually formed an organization called Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and they won international recognition for pressing their demands until 1983, when a civilian government was restored..
Marty McReynolds was a longtime reporter in South America for a news agency and then an editor at the Miami Herald