Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: The Unfinished Story of the “Disappeared”

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 24 2009 (IPS) - “The night of Oct. 23, 1976, nearly 33 years ago, was the last time I saw my son Pablo. He was 17 years old, and he was terrified. Since then I have had no reliable news about his fate. My family and I have been left at the mercy of the anguished torments of our imagination.”

This is the opening paragraph of the book “La historia íntima de los derechos humanos en Argentina” (The Inside Story of Human Rights in Argentina”) by Graciela Fernández Meijide, a woman whose own life story was turned upside down the day Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship seized one of her three children, who was in his last year of secondary school.

Fernández Meijide, who was a French teacher, found herself thrust into the role of activist, as a member of the non-governmental Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH).

In 1984, she was named secretary of the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), set up to collect testimony on the dictatorship’s victims of forced disappearance.

Fernández Meijide led CONADEP in its work compiling the accounts of family members who lost loved ones to forced disappearance, and the testimony of torture survivors, which were produced in the report “Nunca Más” (Never Again), also published as a book presented by the Commission’s chairman, internationally renowned writer Ernesto Sábato.

The detailed report served as evidence for the historic prosecution, conviction and imprisonment of the members of the ruling junta for human rights violations in the mid-1980s. Several generals were handed life sentences.

However, rightwing former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) later pardoned them, while lower-ranking members of the armed forces were let off the hook by two amnesty laws, issued in 1986 and 1987 in the midst of military uprisings.

“On one hand, the book serves to bear witness,” Fernández Meijide told IPS. “But it is also a description of how the (human rights) groups worked, their discrepancies and common ground, and the strategies that we had to come up with creatively in order to, first, survive the dictatorship, and later, survive the attempts to undermine our credibility.”

“It is told from the inside,” she said.

The book reveals arguments between the families of the “disappeared” and members of organisations linked to political parties, and debates about whether or not to support CONADEP or other initiatives in search of justice.

The publication of “The Inside Story” this month touched off a heated debate, not over the book’s contents but as a result of comments made by the author.

For example, the number of victims of forced disappearance cited by Fernández Meijide drew angry reactions from human rights groups and from the government Human Rights Secretariat, which put the number much higher than the figures mentioned in the book.

The author cites the official figure – 7,030 – and CONADEP’s total of documented cases – nearly 9,000. She makes no reference to the much larger estimate – 30,000 – historically provided by human rights organisations, including the groups representing mothers and other family members of victims, and used by the government of President Cristina Fernández and the administration of her predecessor (and husband), Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007).

Fernández Meijide also sparked an outcry over her proposal for offering reduced sentences to members of the military who provide accurate information on the fate of their victims.

In Argentina, trials of military personnel accused of committing human rights abuses during the dictatorship have been in full swing since the Supreme Court struck down the two amnesty laws in 2005 and revoked Menem’s pardon in 2007.

But the legal proceedings are moving slowly, and defendants and witnesses are starting to die of old age.

Fernández Meijide argues that, along the lines of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, under which perpetrators could apply for amnesty for political crimes they made full disclosure of, shorter sentences should be offered to those who cooperate by providing “verifiable, reliable information” on the fate of the “disappeared,” before their families die without ever finding out what happened to their loved ones.

“It is the obligation of the state to ensure justice and truth,” the author remarked after the presentation of her book.

She also said there are former political prisoners, victims’ relatives and judges who are considering that alternative, in order to uncover information about the victims of forced disappearance.

A few days after the book launch, the media published an open letter by Sonia Torres, founder of the provincial branch of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo – a group created by women searching for the stolen children of their own “disappeared” sons and daughters – in the central province of Córdoba.

In the open letter, she urges her unknown grandson or granddaughter to get in touch with her before she turns 80, in September.

Torres’ daughter was 21 and eight months pregnant when she was seized the same year that Fernández Meijide’s son was “disappeared.”

Years later she found out that her daughter was killed after giving birth. Since then she has been seeking her lost granddaughter or grandson, who would be 33 years old now.

The missing grandchildren were kidnapped as small children along with their parents or were born to political prisoners in clandestine detention centres. The great majority of these children, slightly over 500 according to the estimates of the Grandmothers, are living today under the false identities they were illegally given by those who kidnapped or raised them, many of whom were military families.

Another woman, 80-year-old María Isabel Chorobik de Mariani – who is going blind – admitted to Fernández Meijide that she was prepared to accept a reduced sentence for the perpetrators – now in prison – who seized her son, her daughter-in-law and their three-month-old baby if they would just say where her missing granddaughter, whose name was Anahí, is today.

But the leaders of the human rights groups almost unanimously spoke out against Fernández Meijide’s idea.

The president of the Grandmothers, Estela Carlotto, who lost her daughter, son-in-law and grandson – born in a concentration camp – flatly rejected the proposal, which she described as “negotiating impunity in exchange for finding our grandkids.”

Fernández Meijide said the people who have criticised her ideas “have not even read the book and are letting themselves be influenced by comments by others.”

She said the suggestion of offering reduced sentences in exchange for information is not actually even mentioned in the book.

What the book does provide is a profound glimpse into the pain and helpless frustration suffered by a woman who, at 78, is afraid she will die without finding out what happened to Pablo.

“When such a big loss happens, there are funeral rites and a mourning process. But when you’re talking about someone who simply vanished, and you don’t know what happened to them, even though they are presumed to have been killed, there is never any closure,” she said.

Pablo was abducted seven months after the Mar. 24, 1976 coup d’etat staged by a military junta headed by General Jorge Videla.

A group of men who identified themselves as federal police knocked on the door of the family’s Buenos Aires apartment and took the 17-year-old away. A few days before, they had seized classmates of his.

“None of us cried because we couldn’t imagine the depths of the horrors that lay ahead,” Fernández Meijide says in her book.

In the search for her son, she found consolation among other families whose sons and daughters or other loved ones had been taken away. And shortly after Pablo disappeared she quit her job as a high school teacher to dedicate herself fully to her activism.

In 1984 she accepted the task in CONADEP – a job that few were able to handle.

The government of then president Raúl Alfonsín (1983-1989) had already proposed a dozen candidates to compile personal accounts for the Commission. But they inevitably fled after a few days of work, overwhelmed by the painful testimony they were gathering, witnesses tell Fernández Meijide in the book.

The government then turned to her, as she had already done similar work during the dictatorship itself.

Over the years, Fernández Meijide got involved in politics. She was a prominent member of the centre-left Alliance that governed Argentina from 1999 to 2001, after standing out as a vocal opponent of the Menem administration. In those years she was a legislator and later minister of social development.

Now, retired from public life, she just spent two years writing the book that she describes as “an integral history of the development of the human rights organisations and CONADEP,” but also as the unfinished story of her son Pablo and thousands of other victims of forced disappearance.

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