“If a woman who has given birth in an Argentine concentration camp is ever liberated, the first thing she will ask her parents will be: Where is my child? So, what do we tell her; what do we tell our sons and daughters if we have not been able to find their children, from whom they have been separated? That is why this is a very intense and meaningful search for us. More than just based on our beliefs and sense of justice, our search is to a large extent motivated by the responsibility we feel towards our sons and daughters, the parents of our missing grandchildren.”
The woman speaking is María Isabel de Mariani, the former President of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a remarkable group of older women who have devoted their lives to finding their “disappeared” grandchildren, victims of the reign of terror in Argentina under the military regime of General Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-1981). The organization was nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize five times or their humanitarian work and achievements.
Many of the disappeared children were born in concentration camps to women who wee pregnant at the time they were abducted by the military. Other children disappeared along with their parents. Many of the captured children were later put up for adoption, often to members of the same repressive military or police forces that had kidnapped them.
Since its inception in 1977, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have been relentlessly looking for their grandchildren and successfully located 122 children, the last one on April 25, 2017. I spoke to Mrs. de Mariani shortly after the groups’ formation and asked her to tell me about one of the cases they had solved. Her face lit up. “It was Beto!” she said and proceeded to tell me Beto’s story.
“Approximately a month ago, a man named Juan Carlos Juárez came to our headquarters in Buenos Aires to ask for our help in trying to locate his nephew, nicknamed Beto.” The child, whose real name is Sebastián Juárez, had disappeared in 1977, when he was three years old. At the time, Beto had been living with his mother, Lucinda, in Buenos Aires Province. When paramilitary forces abducted Lucinda at gunpoint, they left the child in a neighbor’s house, an older man fond of Beto. He kept Beto with him for a few days, and then took the child to a Juvenile Court Judge, who gave Beto to a foster family living in the area.
“We put together the information Beto’s uncle had gathered and what we found out” explained Mrs. de Mariani, “and after an intensive search we were able to locate the old man who had sheltered the child after his mother’s abduction and disappearance. He told us what he knew of the child’s whereabouts, and with that information we were finally able to find out where Beto [now ten years old] was. We went there with his uncle, and asked the woman who was taking care of Beto to let us see and talk to him. She didn’t allow us to talk to him, but we were able to see him through a barred window, a timid child with a sad face.”
After that initial contact, the Grandmothers made a series of inquiries and visited several judges to ask for their advice on the best way to deal with the case. By that time, Mr. Juárez’s sister, nicknamed Chichi, went to Buenos Aires and the judge gave her permission to talk to Beto. He developed a warm relationship with his aunt, who eventually collected all the documentation necessary to be grated custody of the child. After much travail, Beto was returned to his family.
“On the same day that Beto was back with his family,” continued Mrs. De Mariani, “Chichi brought him to the Grandmothers’ headquarters in Buenos Aires. When Beto arrived, we gave him our corporate stamps to play with. He was playing with them when all of a sudden he saw the picture of a little girl we had been trying to locate. We were doing press releases about her case, which is very important because we found out that she had been adopted by a man who was the head of one of the most infamous death squads operating in Argentina. That man is now a fugitive, and has taken the girl and the rest of his family with him.” Mrs. de Mariani paused for a few seconds and the continued.
“I was sitting next to Beto when he asked who this girl was. His aunt, with great sensitivity, told him, ‘She is a girl who has disappeared, and the Grandmothers are now looking for her as they were looking for you.’ He didn’t say anything, continued stamping papers and said, ‘First they get rid of them [the children] and then they look for them.’ I was taken aback by Beto’s words. I explained to Beto that this girl had never been abandoned by her family, and that her grandmother had been desperately looking for her. He continued playing silently, occasionally looking at me with those big, wonderful eyes of his. I then took a picture out of my wallet and told him, ‘See? I am also looking for my granddaughter; her name is Clara Anahí. I love her dearly, but I cannot find her and bring her back to me.’ I said to him that many nights I cry out of frustration, and then I explained to him as clearly as possible the process by which children were made to disappear. He listened to me attentively, but still he did not say anything.
He then went to an office next to ours, where our secretary [Nora] works. Beto saw her typing on a big electric typewriter, something he had never seen before. Our secretary is not an abuela [grandmother]; she is the only young person working in our headquarters. They quickly developed a good rapport.
Nora asked Beto if he would like her to type his name. He agreed, and for the first time in his life Beto saw his full name in print. He looked at it with curiosity, and asked Nora if she would mind adding something after his name. She said that she would not and Beto asked her, “Please write Now.” Because the word by itself didn’t have any meaning Nora proceeded to ask him, “Now what?” Lowering his head, Beto responded, “Now Beto is free.”
César Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award for “Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims,” which was published as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine.