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Fierce Mothers Battle On
J uana de Pargament speaks bold- ly, passionately, and without stopping. This indomitable 90- year-old marches around the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires at 3:30 PM every Thursday, arm-in-arm with other mothers.
Juana is a founder of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, women who protested their children’s disappearances during Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, the so-called “dirty war,” from 1976- 1983. She has been marching for 27 years.
Juana and the other Mothers, revolutionaries hardened by battling state-sponsored terror, continue to wage war today. They regularly speak out against the repayment of foreign debt, the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the war and abuse of prisoners in Iraq, and the plight of factory workers in Argentina.
When protests against Argentina’s economic policies erupted in December 2001 (street memorials to fallen activists still dot Buenos Aires), the Mothers joined in. They denounced “Yankee imperialism” and described President Bush as a “fanatical assassin.” Their outspoken president, Hebe Pastor de Bonafini, has met with Fidel Castro and Subcommander Marcos. The Mothers blame Argentina’s current woes on foreign aid dependence, fomented by Presidents Carlos Menem and Fernando De la Rúa, and harsh restrictions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. They also support the “ piquetero ” (picketer) protests against mass unemployment, although Bonafini has criticized some of its methods.
The Mothers’ weekly revolution has become a tourist experience. Walking calmly and wearing their trademark white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of “ los desaparecidos ” (the disappeared), the Mothers barely notice the fans surrounding them. “When we are in the Plaza, we feel something different. We put on our kerchiefs and we feel like our children are with us. That is why we don’t talk about death, we talk about life,” says Juana.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo began the fight as a group of 14 on April 30, 1977. After former president Isabel Peron declared a state of siege, a military junta stepped into power in 1976. Under the “Doctrine of National Security,” fighting communism and upholding Christianity were trademarks of a regime based on censorship and persecution of sub- versives.
Dazed by a sudden surge in the kidnappings, which had begun as early as 1971, the Mothers banded together to demand information. When General Jorge Rafael Videla refused to meet with them, former President Azucena Villaflor suggested they assemble in the plaza facing the Casa Rosada —the presidential palace.
The middle-aged and older women, most of whom had never been politically active before, suddenly faced snarling dogs, police brutality, and death threats, which continue today.
According to Bonafini’s account in the History of th e Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo , the women were condemned as mothers of “terrorists.” Several original Mothers, including Villaflor, disappeared. In 1979 they resorted to secret church meetings for fear of harshening repercussions. “Our children were militants, they knew about all this, but we didn’t. We were still working in our kitchens,” says Juana. “We went into the streets to look for them. We knocked on every door. Everything was, ‘No. We haven’t seen them, we don’t know them, we don’t recognize them.’”
Juana says their fight made them tough. “When we fought for our one child, we realized this was weak. But 100 mothers making the same request were very powerful. And that is how we got to know each other, how we insulted the military...and how we created a sisterhood from the same fight.”
The Mothers eventually discovered that their children were held in 340 secret detention centers where they were tortured, killed, and sometimes thrown into the ocean (the largest and most infamous, the Navy Mechanics School [ESM], will be turned into a public space next year).
Exiled journalist Miguel Bon- asso, writes in his memoir, Diario de un Clandestino , that if captured, he was prepared to kill himself to prevent the torture of his wife and children. Juana says lawyers, doctors, and psychologists participated in the systematic torture, with doctors determining how much prisoners could withstand each day without dying. The Mothers have also accused Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and the sugar refinery Ledesma of lending trucks for kidnappings.
When asked about her own dirty war fatalities, Juana is uncharacteristically hesitant. She says they do not usually tell their own stories, referring instead to the collective fight. Finally, she consents.
had just retired from the Royal Bank of Canada. Her two children,
Griselda and Alberto, both doctors, were grown. Her husband had
died in 1960. But then one night in 1976 her son Alberto “disappeared”
in 1976 when he was 31 years old. He was involved in a political
movement, but Juana is still not sure which one. She never knew
The night of his abduction, Alberto attended patients in his office in Juana’s home until 7:00 PM. He was taken from his apartment around 2:00 AM. His pregnant girlfriend was told to cover her face while armed men robbed their house. Juana never heard from him again.
“I had just retired and wanted to live for myself a little. But what happened, it changed my life, and all the other Mothers’ lives. Now we don’t think about ourselves, but about them and about the absence in each of their families that no one can replace,” says Juana.
The Mothers decided the way to ease their own pain and celebrate their children was to continue their fight. “Our society is in great pain, which is not easy to quell. Only with this fight are these spaces filled inside us, and we do it for these beautiful children,” Juana says. “They were revolutionaries. They wanted to produce change so this country would be worth living in.”
Despite the palpable fear inspired by omnipresent Ford Falcons patrolling the streets, the Mothers were defiant. “I don’t know if having them in our wombs for nine months gave us courage, but we were never scared,” says Juana. “We looked the military in the eye. We didn’t ask, we demanded.”
Juana was arrested three times in the plaza, once spending a day and night in jail before she was released. She proudly recounts one conversation with an interrogator.
“I told him, I want you to answer me. If you were taken today, don’t you think your mother would link arms and walk for her son? He didn’t like it, not at all. He told me, ‘Get out, get out’.”
Juana and the other Mothers agitated internationally, eventually provoking criticism of Argentina by journalists, human rights organizations, and the United Nations— earning a UNESCO Prize for Peace Education in 1999 and inspiring women’s groups from Holland to Guatemala. However, even as they were promised help, State Department officials maintained covert business relationships with the military. In fact, many military officials had been trained in U.S. military academies to fight the spread of “communism.”
“We believed they were listening with love and understanding. But it was not true,” Juana jabs the air for emphasis. “Carter tricked us, they all did.”
During Operation Condor—the code name for the secret regional South American plan to share intelligence on suspected Marxists—the Mothers received no support from the Chilean military government and activists were detained in Brazil and Uruguay as they tried to escape. The Mothers also received little aid from the Catholic Church, even though nuns and priests also disappeared. “Of the 80 bishops, only four understood us,” says Juana. “The rest supported the military, like the pope.” According to Juana, former papal envoy Pio Laghi entered concentration camps and signed death sentences. “He kicked the kids that were being tortured and said, ‘Tell them everything you know and you will be saved.’ And they still weren’t saved.”
Juana, who is Jewish, claims about 2,000 Jews were among the disappeared, with Jewish prisoners receiving “double the torture.” They were made to walk on all fours and paint their bodies with swastikas, as Nazi music blared. When the Mothers asked the Israeli embassy to save the Jewish disappeared, the Mothers were told Israel didn’t want them either because they were revolutionaries.
After the transfer to democracy in 1983, the Mothers met with new President Raúl Alfonsín, but found him unresponsive. He formed the National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP), which released explosive details of military repression, but found only 9,000 disappeared. The Mothers estimate at least 30,000.
Under Alfonsín, the so-called “full stop” law was created, stating that no new complaints could be issued against crimes committed during the dictatorship. The subsequent “due obedience” law, which eliminated punishments for underlings following orders, further infuriated the Mothers.
Bodies were exhumed from mass graves and sent to the Mothers, who did not accept them. “I’ll tell you what we’ve said from the beginning. We don’t want posthumous memorials. The battle itself speaks of what they wanted, what they gave their lives for,” says Juana. “We didn’t want their cadavers or bones.”
Alfonsín offered them $250,000 per “disappeared,” but the Mothers saw it as a ploy to buy their silence. If they accepted the money, they would have had to sign a document affirming that their children had been killed in armed confrontations with the military and they could no longer criticize the government. “[Others] responded with pacts and silence...we say we will not forget and we will not forgive. Those who were there during the repression collaborated in killing 30,000 people,” says Juana. “They programmed terrorism against anyone who did not think like them.”
Juana believes the military regime successfully harnessed a legacy of state-sanctioned terror in Argentina.
Juana says this climate of fear persists today. In part because Menem granted amnesty to dirty war participants, freeing convicted junta members and effectively put- ting the military in the street.
The Mothers have formed a better relationship with current President Nestor Kirchner, who offered them unparalleled access to the Casa Rosada .
Under Kirchner, amnesty laws have been annulled, allowing for the possible trial of military leaders. He also repealed Decree 1581, which De la Rúa issued to bar Argentine judges from agreeing to foreign extradition requests for war criminals. Kirchner also vowed to fight corruption among the police, which Human Rights Watch has denounced for brutality and excess force.
When Kirchner took control in 2003, he told the Mothers, “I understand your fight because it (the disappearances) reached even my closest friends.”
“We remain vigilant, because this man has received a hot potato that can burn him with all the problems in this country,” says Juana. “We will see how much he can comply with what he has promised.”
Even as they continue to agitate, the Mothers have also moved into a new role—teachers. Visitors often use them as a primary resource to understand a past Argentines are loath to discuss. “We do it with pleasure,” says Juana. “By knowing the story, it won’t be repeated and it won’t be forgotten.”
The Mothers have written several histories, profiles of the disappeared, and a monthly newspaper. Their headquarters houses a revolutionary bookstore, cafe, and library. In 2000, they began the Popular University of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, offering an activist education unavailable in mainstream schools. “This history we lived, you’re not going to find it in the textbooks. There are parents that don’t want to tell their children what they lived through. That’s why they come here. They tell us, ‘If my mother knew I was coming here, she would kill me,’” says Juana. “We want to leave something for the next generations. We had a president who burned books in the street. We are now giving culture to the young people in the university.”
The 1,600 students choose from 8 majors, including human rights, political and social economics, and journalism. A course on the history of the Mothers’ struggle is mandatory. According to Juan Francisco Maciel, who completed a Masters degree in human rights from the university, it is “a space for discussion, battle and resistance.”
Juana thinks young activists should immerse themselves in history, but steer clear of violent conflict. “Save the country with concepts, with feelings, with morality, not with the savagery of the military,” she says. “We fight so new leaders are born to govern with honesty and love. When we don’t live anymore, we want people to remember our example and what happened in this country that made us give our lives to change it once and for all.”
Amanda Schoenberg has worked as a reporter for The Tico Times , in San Jose, Costa Rica.
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