Life

Mothers of Plaza De Mayo:
Justice for disappeared
loved ones, one step at
a (long) time

Lydia Taty Almeida: (JP/J. Adiguna)
Lydia Taty Almeida (JP/J. Adiguna)

Why are there women here dancing on their own?/ Why is there this sadness in their eyes? ../ They’re dancing with the missing/They’re dancing with the dead/They dance with the invisible ones/Their anguish is unsaid … (Sting)

The idiom “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” applies to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.  Established in 1977, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an organization of Argentine mothers whose children disappeared during the “Dirty War”, the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Since 1977, the bereaved mothers have gathered to walk around the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires for 30 minutes every Thursday afternoon. The simple action of walking gradually caught the world’s attention. Their movement has also inspired families of the disappeared and victims of the human rights violation in Indonesia to engage in similar peaceful protests in front of the State Palace. The Argentinean women have received international awards for their work on human rights. Songs have even been dedicated to them, such as “They Dance Alone” by Sting and Mothers of the Disappeared by U2.

Two members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (who are now grandmothers) Lydia Taty Almeida and Aurora Morea, visited Jakarta between April 16 and April 22 to share their experience with families of the disappeared. They also met with the National Commission on Human Rights and National Commission on Violence Against Women to boost efforts towards the ratification of The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Convention against Enforced Disappeared). In the words of Morea, those who kidnap people and make them vanish want to ensure that the victims “are non existent, are nothing, with no identity.” “But Juan, Carlos, Susana [her own son]… exists among the 30,000 who disappeared.”

“Holding on to the memory is the way to fight remains of the past regimes which want the whole story of the disappeared to vanish,” Morea said through an interpreter. During their time in Jakarta Almeida and Aurora sat down with The Jakarta Post for an interview;  the following is an excerpt.

How did the mothers start the movement?

Almeida: In 1976, there was a military coup and the government was taken over. But the disappearances already started in 1975. After the military coup, more and more people disappeared. The mothers started to ask around about their sons and daughters. [Almeida’s first son Alejandro, a first year medical student, disappeared after he left home in 1975. In 1976, Morea lost four family members: daughter Susana, who was two months pregnant, Susana’s husband, the mother of her son-in-law and another son-in-law. – Ed.]

Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti, one of the founders of the group, decided that there’s no point in everybody going separately, we have to go together to achieve something.  She decided to get everyone together and said, “Let’s go to the Plaza de Mayo.” It is the square near the government building. Everything, from demonstrations to celebrations, is held there.

At that time, there was a law prohibiting more than three people from gathering together. There were 14 mothers gathering at the first meeting and the police kept asking us to walk on. So we walked in pairs around the square. That’s how we first started the movement on Thursday, April 30, 1977. Until today, we walk around the square every Thursday.

How do the mothers keep the spirit for 32 years?

Almeida: Even if you are not an activist, no woman is ever prepared to lose the most precious thing top her, her children. Most of us were schoolteachers, housewives, and some were professionals, but none had ever experience in activism. We asked questions to the government. Everything was learned by doing.

We just march and we have achieved things very slowly. But in the last 10 years, we have seen justice upheld. There were trials and some of the perpetrators have been convicted. It keeps us going and gives us energy, we will not stop until the last perpetrator is convicted.

Morea: In the beginning, it was the desperate feeling of losing the children and nobody was able to tell us where they were. It was the powerlessness that brought us together. Then the police would kick us around [when marching around the plaza] and put us in prison. It was like walking constantly against the wall. The more we didn’t find out [news of the children], the more determined we were to keep going around the plaza.

Aurora Morea: (JP/J. Adiguna)

Aurora Morea (JP/J. Adiguna)

What are some of the problems the mothers have faced in the past?

Almeida: When we started, no one took us seriously. People called us crazy. In a way, perhaps we were crazy because of our grief and pain. If we went to the police to report the disappearances, the police would say, ”Oh yes, don’t worry, your son has probably gone away with his girlfriend.” Many people were also scared and ignored us. It was important for us to form the group, to have other mothers uplifting each other’s spirit.

Morea: Many of the disappeared were thrown out of airplanes alive, they were called death flights [according to the perpetrators’ testimony given in courtroom]. The bodies were never found. Many women taken into custody were pregnant. The perpetrators waited until the mothers gave birth, killed the mothers and gave the babies to military families. So we made another organization called Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. It is estimated around 500 babies were lost this way, and only 90 were found. They were not sure if they were children of the disappeared, because some of them refused to participate in DNA tests.

Almeida: The disappeared can be anyone, not just activists, but journalists and people who went to slums and told people how to do things. It was just a social thing, but the government didn’t like it. You only needed to make a comment against the government [to get abducted].
The government at the time instituted neoliberal economic policies ...  The majority of the disappeared were people who had homes and food but they fought for equal access to water, education and healthcare. It definitely didn’t fit into the economic plan. If they had continued their fight, Argentina would have become a whole different country.

We found around 600 detention centers, where they tortured, killed and raped the victims. There’s a military school in Panama,  run by the US Army. When the US army were in Vietnam, they learned torture techniques. After the Vietnam war, they went to the school and taught the Argentinean military how to torture. A lot of torture techniques used in Argentina are learned from the American armies [In 2000, the US government under Clinton administration released a 1978 cable from the US ambassador to Paraguay, Robert White, to the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The cable shows the US were involved in the disappearances of left-wing activists in South America], that’s what shocked us.

When did you start to get results from the movement?

Almeida: In 1983, when a democratic government was reinstalled, the government put the military generals on trial. It was a huge step after so many years. People began to feel justice was being served. Unfortunately the generals were released later.  Some of the military members had pressed President Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín to stop the trials. Eventually he bowed under the pressure. He also passed two laws prohibiting such trials [The Argentinean Congress passed Full Stop Law in 1986 and Law of Due Obedience in 1987. The laws limited the trials and gave immunity to perpetrators]. It took things back to square one.

The first time we really felt results was in 2003, under President Néstor Kirchner. He was the first one who actually made [forced disappearances] a political issue. It was the focus of his government. He denounced the above laws, listened to the mothers and knew the perpetrators should be put on trial.  A number of generals have been convicted. There are barriers, but we’ll never give up the cause until our last breath.

Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner [wife of Néstor who is Argentina’s current president] were democratically elected. Both are the result of people’s choice. Cristina now continues the work of her husband.   We don’t have the bodies to bury, there were no remains. We need to have burial rituals because we don’t know where they are, what happened to them.

Morea: Anthropologists play an important role in our cases because when we find burial sites, they can identify the bodies even if they had been buried for 20 years.  In 1999, we found a mass burial site and the anthropologist identified the remains of Susana, who was shot in her head, along with the remains of Susana’s husband. The mother of my son-in-law and the other son-in-law were never found, perhaps they were taken onboard a death flight, but we don’t know for sure. Now I can go [to Susana’s grave] and mourn and pray. At least one chapter is closed.

That whole process is really important. You don’t know whether they were alive, whether they suffered, tortured or shot instantly. Many bodies have been found, but it is still a long process. This helps mothers deal with it psychologically

What are the challenges the mothers face today?

Almeida: The trial process is very slow, we are getting older. We worry that we are running out of time. We want to see every perpetrator put in prison. From the moment you see the lawyers until the perpetrators are put in prison, it could take years.  

Morea: In my cases, it took 23 years to find the bodies, and eight years to try two perpetrators. But in the end, only one was put in prison, the other was set free. It can take 20 years or 30 years. We don’t need to find the bodies, testimony from witnesses is enough. But it is still difficult. 

The organization of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo split into two factions. Why?

Almeida: It is a difficult subject. We split in 1986 because we had different visions on how to continue the fight. Our group, Founding Line, only wants justice, we want to know what happened to our children and put the perpetrators on trial.  We don’t want to disagree and agree to everything. It’s not a fight with the government, it’s more a discussion. If the government does something good, we congratulate them. If not, we will lobby the government. We are not a political party.

The other group is more political. But I’m going to leave it at that. [The other faction, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association, reportedly wants more fundamental changes in Argentina]

What was the meeting with the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights about?

Almeida: We talked about the importance of ratifying the convention on the protection against forced disappearances and about the human rights cases. It is a very big field to work on, because the Criminal Code still uses the Dutch version. And every single case [on human rights] must go to parliament, to the Attorney General. If the process in Argentina is slow, it is double slow here. It is difficult. But people here are still young, the mothers of the disappeared must continue. If they don’t do it, nobody else will.

What suggestions do you have for the movement here?

Almeida: Lose no hope. Keep fighting. Guard the memories. We wear headscarves with the names of our disappeared children. We also bring the pictures of our children. It prevents us from forgetting them. We need to show that the disappeared are humans; they have names, faces and families.

Post Your Say

Selected comments will be published in the Readers’ Forum page of our print newspaper.