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Friday, February 12, 1999 Published at 04:45 GMT

Argentina's missing babies

Abducted babies were adopted by military couples

By Oana Lungescu in Argentina

My interview with retired Admiral Horacio Zaratiegui did not go exactly as planned. He suggested we should meet in a busy Buenos Aires cafe, because his wife felt ill at ease whenever journalists came to call. I would soon find out she had her reasons.

Horacio Zaratiegui looked like a businessman, but he used to be secretary to Admiral Emilio Massera, one of the leaders of the military junta.

Adopted for 'their own good'

[ image: Emilio Massera: charged with abduction]
Emilio Massera: charged with abduction
Massera has now been charged with stealing and suppressing the identity of almost two hundred children born in detention camps. Some of them had indeed been adopted by military couples, Admiral Zaratiegui said, but it was all for their own good.

"You have to understand that these children have found love," he told me. "Can you imagine what sort of life they would have led with their natural parents - all that running away, hiding in safe houses, the shoot-outs with the army ... They were saved from all that."

As I strained to hear him over the din of the cafe, I suddenly became aware of a young woman standing next to our table. Her name was Flavia and she was a student of journalism, she said -- she'd overheard the Admiral and couldn't help but speak out.

She was certain there had been a systematic plan to abduct the babies.

Evidence destroyed

There were after all lists of documents burnt by the army - one of them called Procedures to be Followed Regarding the Children of Subversives.

"But if the papers were destroyed, how do you know we didn't recommend returning them to their families?" the Admiral replied.

And then turning to me, he said, "This is just the sort of left-wing propaganda our young people get taught in journalism school."

But Flavia had her own story to tell. Her cousin, she said, had disappeared during the Dirty War - she was simply a lawyer who took up the cases of the disappeared.

'This man is an assassin'

"Even to this day," Flavia said with tears in her eyes, "my aunt changes the sheets on my cousin's bed. Our wounds can't be healed just like that. For me, this man is an assassin."

Admiral Zaratiegui took it all in his stride. He'd been called an assassin once before - on a live television debate.

Mothers killed in detention

Last year, Judge Roberto Marquevich stunned public opinion by ordering the arrest of former army chief Jorge Videla over the theft of babies, which had been excluded from the amnesty laws passed after the end of military rule.

The babies were treated like any household implement, Judge Roberto Marquevich told me. It appears that in some detention centres there were not only warehouses containing furniture, cars and other items robbed from the prisoners, but also lists of military couples waiting to adopt children.

[ image: Jorge Videla was arrested last year]
Jorge Videla was arrested last year
Babies born to pretty, white-skinned mothers were particularly sought after. Blindfolded at all times, the women would be taken down to special cells, forced to have caesareans and then often killed.

When democracy returned to Argentina, some of the children were returned to their families by brave judges such as Roberto Marquevich.

Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo

The latest arrests will provide some comfort to a group of elderly women, known as the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. For over 20 years, they've marched silently every Thursday in the centre of Buenos Aires, protesting over the disappearance of their loved ones.

I'm sure they've killed my daughter, one of their leaders, Rosa Roisinbilt, told me. But I won't rest until I know what happened to her and to my nephew, Rodolfo, who was born in captivity.

In their tireless search, the Grandmothers have turned into detectives and legal experts. They've also enlisted psychotherapists.

Dealing with the trauma

[ image: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo search for those who disappeared]
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo search for those who disappeared
Alicia Lo Giudice helped some of the children deal with a trauma that had no name. Now it's called "the syndrome of forced abandonment."

One little girl who was two years old at the time of the abduction, but was registered as a newborn, had her physical growth delayed by two years. Another said she felt as if a hand pressed down on her head to prevent her from growing up. Many had speech impediments.

At a seminar given by Alicia Lo Giudice and Rosa Roisinbilt at Buenos Aires University, I met Maria Lavalle, a psychology student with deep brown eyes and an easy smile.

Young people discovering their past

Her parents disappeared when she was one. Her mother gave birth in a camp and it took ten years for the Grandmothers to track down Maria's sister.

She'd been adopted by a policewoman working in the same camp where her mother was killed.

Now, Maria's sister is trying to meet other young people who may be reluctant to find out about their painful past. Maria herself is helping set up an archive on the disappeared.

The Grandmothers may die any day now, she told me, but we have to carry on.

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