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Wednesday, 19 August, 1998, 18:30 GMT 19:30 UK
The Living Disappeared
Marta Vasquez still grieves for her daughter, 'disappeared' in 1976 - and hunts for the grandchild she's never met
By Lucy Ash

It's known as "the Dirty War": the period between 1976 and 1983 when Argentina was ruled by a military junta merciless in its treatment of anyone known -- or thought -- to oppose its regime.. It was a time of summary abductions, torture, clandestine executions and fear. And today, it's a period which modern, democratic Argentina is still unsure whether it should re-examine, or try to leave in the past.

But closing this particularly painful chapter of modern history has been difficult - because of the sheer numbers of those who were detained during the Dirty War and never seen again - an unknown number of people, estimated between 10,000 and 30,000 who're known, collectively, as "The Disappeared".

People from all walks of life 'disappeared' under military rule
Until recently what details could be gathered about the fate of the Disappeared were based on reports of those few who survived. A grim pattern emerged: people suspected by the military of being "subversive" would be abducted in raids by plainclothes men. They were taken to detention centres - the most notorious of which was the ESMA - the Naval Mechanical School in Buenos Aires. Many were tortured, most were kept hooded, handcuffed, and in silence. Then they vanished without trace.

More recently valuable extra evidence was supplied by someone who had worked within the military system. A former navy captain, Adolfo Scilingo, dogged by a guilty conscience, admitted that he had helped in the disposal of prisoners. He described how they were drugged, loaded onto military planes and thrown out, naked and semi-conscious into the Atlantic Ocean.

But it wasn't just adults who disappeared. It's emerged that a number of the woman who were abducted were pregnant when they were detained. And human rights groups say there's evidence to suggest that as many as 200 of these women were kept alive until they had given birth. The babies were taken away for adoption - usually by military families. The real mothers then disappeared, this time completely.

Perla Wasserman, one of the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo
For years, the conscience of the nation has been kept alive by a tireless group of ordinary women - mothers and grandmothers of those who'd disappeared. Every Thursday, for the past 21 years, they've met at the Plaza de Mayo - a busy central square in central Buenos Aires. There, in full view of the Presidential Palace, they walk slowly round in a circle, wearing white headscarves on which they've embroidered the names of their missing relatives, and the date they were last seen.

Argentina's President Carlos Menem gave amnesty to most of the old junta
Up until now, their quest for justice has had limited success. Although some of Argentina's military leaders were tried and jailed for human rights abuses immediately after the Dirty War, they were pardoned and released under a General Amnesty ordered by the current President, Carlos Menem, in 1990. So the grandmothers have concentrated their efforts on trying to locate the children who were born in captivity and spirited away - children who must now be in their 20s and who're known as "The Living Disappeared"

And now, for the grandmothers, and the hundreds of other relatives trying to trace these children, there may be fresh hope. Prosecutors say that the crime of stealing children was not included in the 1990 amnesty - and so, in theory, some of the military leaders can be put on trial again. In June this year, Jorge Videla - President during the Dirty War- was put under house arrest pending a new official investigation into the kidnappings. Yet not everyone is convinced a new round of legal recriminations will really put an end to the families' agony.

Even Jaime Malamud, the ex-Solicitor General who organised the original trials to punish the junta's leaders, and still feels strongly their crimes cannot be ignored, has mixed feelings. He points out that the new trials may work to scapegoat the generals while letting far larger numbers of 'ordinary people' off the hook. The real horror of the Dirty War was just how close to home it was, and how many collaborated with it.

Estella Carlotto at the Abuelas' HQ; a pinboard charts their progress
Estella Carlotto is a founder member of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. With her neat blonde hair and sensible skirt, she now runs a formidable detective operation. After years of following tip offs, patiently watching school playgrounds and suspect families, the Grandmothers have tracked down 59 of the missing children, of whom 31have now been restored to their blood relatives. There is still no trace, though of the child which Estella's own daughter, Laura is reported to have had in prison before she was killed.

Establishing just how the baby-stealing worked has been difficult. Although there were midwives and doctors who worked in the detention camps, the few who dared to talk during the Dirty War disappeared themselves. And now, many of those involved claim they didn't know what was going on. But Estella finds this very hard to believe. "These women giving birth were brought in wearing hoods over their heads," Estella Carlotto says. "And they were kept handcuffed, even on the delivery table."

One of the earliest cases of children to be found and re-united with their blood family is Elena Galinares. She grew up in the family of a military policeman who told they'd adopted her after she was abandoned. She didn't find out the truth until she was 10 - and her real grandmother came to claim her. "It was strange, because in a way I recognised her," Elena says now. "Of course I had never seen her before, but there was something about her that even then, I knew was familiar."

Elena was finally returned to her real grandmother after a DNA test proved without doubt that she was indeed the long lost grandchild they'd been searching for. Since she last saw them as a child across a courtroom, Elena has had no contact with her adoptive family. Today she refers to them only as "kidnappers".

Elena was delighted to be re-untied with her real family. But she was lucky - she was only 10 when she was found, and could adapt relatively easily to the change. But not all of the missing children feel the same - as 72-year-old Marta Vasquez found out earlier this year.

Maria Vasquez disappeared without trace - but what about her baby?
Marta's daughter Maria disappeared in 1976. After 8 years of searching and hoping, Marta finally learned that Maria had been killed. But she also learned that before Maria was murdered, she had given birth to a son who was subsequently adopted. After a long and frustrating search, Marta Vasquez is now sure she has found her missing grandson - a young man in his early 20s. But when she arrived, unannounced, at the office where he works, she was unprepared for his reaction.

"When he realised who I was," Marta says, "He want pale and took me aside. I begged him to have the blood test and said then he'd be free to decide what he wanted to do. But he said the tests were unreliable and told me that in any case he wasn't remotely interested in knowing where he came from."

And this reaction is not unique. During the Dirty War, Pablo and Carolina Bianco were adopted by a doctor who ran the prison "maternity ward" during the Dirty War. Dr Bianco is now in jail pending trial. But the two children remain loyal to the man they say they love as their father - and they have fled to Paraguay in order to avoid taking DNA tests.

Jorge Videla got away with torture and murder - but may yet be jailed for the abductions
Judge Adofo Bagnasco is one of the prosecutors who is leading the new investigation against Jorge Videla - and up to 30 other former military officials. He acknowledges that it is likely to unearth more painful details. But this is necessary, he says, if Argentina is to deal with its past --- and move on. "The search for the truth is very important," he says. "People must know what happened; think about why it happened - and ensure that such things never happen again."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
WEBSITE EXCLUSIVES: Elina Galinares,
one of the 'Disappeared' children: "it must be much harder for those who find out when they're older..."
Ex-Solicitor General Jaime Malamud
explains why prosecuting the generals can't solve everything...
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