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Thursday, 10 January, 2002, 12:18 GMT
The Living Disappeared
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".
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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