Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: Children of the ‘Disappeared’ Tell Their Stories

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 25 2008 (IPS) - For the first time, the life stories of children of people forcibly disappeared by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship have been compiled in a book that sheds light on their experiences.

Aníbal with wife and son, and mother Sara Méndez. Credit: Editorial Marea

Aníbal with wife and son, and mother Sara Méndez. Credit: Editorial Marea

"De vuelta a casa. Historias de hijos y nietos restituidos" (roughly, "Back Home: The Stories of Recovered Children and Grandchildren"), published this month in Spanish, contains the first-person accounts of 10 young people kidnapped as babies along with their parents or born into captivity to political prisoners, and raised in many cases by childless military or police couples.

The book helps readers understand why some of the young people, although they have discovered their real identities and have met their biological relatives, have kept the names they were raised with and in some cases continue to call the people who raised them – some of whom were actively involved in the forced disappearance of their biological parents – "mom" and "dad."

But it also enables readers to comprehend why others have embraced their original names, which had been stripped from them when they were small, and have turned their backs on the people who raised them with a lie.

"I also feel upset when people who know us from before call us our ‘false’ names," says Juan Cabandié, who was born in the now closed Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), where the dictatorship’s largest clandestine detention and torture centre operated.

"The phenomenon of the theft of babies and the elimination of their original identities was not fully understood," the book’s author, Analía Argento, tells IPS.

"We are familiar with the work of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo," she says, referring to the prominent human rights group made up of women who since 1976 have been searching for their missing grandchildren – the children of their sons and daughters who were forcibly disappeared during the "dirty war" against leftists and other opponents of the regime.

"But we never understood in depth what those children, who are now over 30, have suffered," she adds.

The photos in the book, some of which have never before been published, are also revealing. In some, the children appear with their biological parents, before they were all kidnapped, and in later shots they are seen in family celebrations with the parents who raised them. Then there are the pictures taken after the young people have been reunited with their biological families.

"For many of them, telling their stories was a liberating experience; they felt heard and understood, because they have mixed feelings and live with contradictions, and they feel, for different reasons, that they have been discriminated against," she says.

Argento also believes the book could help prompt others, who have doubts about their identity, to set out on their own search.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have so far managed to track down 93 missing grandchildren. But according to the group’s estimates, there are still around 400 who have not discovered their biological identity.

Each case in which the original identity of one of the now adult grandchildren was restored has been publicised. But the grandchildren themselves rarely participate in the public announcements.

"Finding out about my history, meeting my family and hearing what my mom and dad’s friends say about them did me good, it opened up my mind," says Claudia Poblete, whose parents were forcibly disappeared and who was raised by a military officer and his wife.

Despite that, she continued to live with the couple who illegally adopted and raised her, after they were put under house arrest.

"You feel stigmatised," says Matías Reggiardo Tolosa, who along with his twin brother Gonzalo were born in captivity and taken by police officer Samuel Miara, who is now in prison, and his wife, Beatriz Castillo.

When the boys were still children, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo received a tip that they were the children of a couple who were forcibly disappeared, and through DNA testing, their biological identities were traced. But they were caught up in a highly-publicised legal battle that dragged on for years.

Matías still calls the woman who raised them "mom" and describes her as "a fundamental pillar in my life."

"We had a happy childhood," he says.

They have had less contact with Miara since he went to prison. "I might even call him ‘dad’ sometimes, but that doesn’t change anything. My parents are my biological parents," he says.

The Reggiardo Tolosa brothers found out their true identities when they were just 10 years old.

Fearing prosecution, Miara and his wife had fled with the twins to Paraguay. But they were extradited to Argentina and put under arrest.

After a battery of psychological tests and mistakes in their identification – the twins were originally suspected of being the sons of one "disappeared" couple but ended up being the children of another – the boys, by now in their teens, were put in the custody of a biological uncle who they had never met.

"I never felt more like a guinea pig than during that time," says Matías. "The team of psychologists wanted to ‘deprogramme’ us; they believed that we had been brainwashed by the Miaras and that we needed a kind of shock therapy."

And their uncle "had the idea that we had been mistreated, but not everything is black and white," he adds.

The twins were among the first of the lost grandchildren to be tracked down, which means they were still young children at the time. Over the years, the Grandmothers have learned to do their work in a less traumatic fashion. And many of the young people, now adults, approached the human rights group on their own because of doubts they had about their identity.

Gonzalo Reggiardo Tolosa carries the photos of his biological mother and father in his billfold. But on the day of his wedding, he walked into the church alongside Castillo, the woman who had been in jail for stealing him and his brother, and Miara was also there.

These are the conflicting realities that the grandchildren live with.

But now that they are over 30, Matías is glad that the doubts have been cleared up. "It is invaluable that they found me, and that my identity was recovered, even if the Grandmothers consider this case a failure in many aspects. The aim has been met," says Matías, who is gradually forging ties with the friends of his biological parents.

Another complex case was that of Simón, the son of former Uruguayan political prisoner Sara Méndez – the only case in which a mother has been reunited with her child.

After she was kidnapped in Argentina along with her weeks-old baby boy, Méndez was secretly taken to neighbouring Uruguay, where she spent five years in prison. She was reunited with her son 26 years later.

His mother insists that he should use the name he was given at birth. But he has clung to the name Aníbal Parodi and to the family who raised him. He says in the book that he and his biological mother fought and were distanced for a while over the name issue.

He also says that before he had children of his own, he was worried about "the antagonism between the two families."

He confesses that at one point he thought "Why the hell did they have to find me?" But today he believes it was a good thing. "It’s ok. That’s how things are. This happened to me. That’s who I am."

Another moving story is that of siblings Marcelo, Victoria and Laura, the son and daughters of Orlando Ruiz and Silvia Daneri.

The first two were kidnapped with their mother and held in captivity with her, before they were abandoned in different parts of the country – the four-year-old Marcelo in the province of Córdoba and the two-year-old Victoria in Santa Fe.

Marcelo and Victoria were eventually reunited and recovered their ties with their biological family. Laura, on the other hand, who was born in the concentration camp where her mother was held before she was forcibly disappeared, knows her real identity, but rejects it.

The author also spoke with Carlos D'Elía, the son of Uruguayan victims of forced disappearance Yolanda Casco and Julio D'Elía. (Julio was the nephew of the late José D'Elía, the long-time leader of Uruguay’s central trade union.)

Carlos D'Elía, who was born in the torture camp known as the Pozo de Banfield, had never before told his story in public.

He was raised by the man who appropriated him, retired Argentine navy lieutenant Carlos De Luccia, who Carlos says he loved very much.

The young man, who became an economist like his biological father, maintains a good relationship with the woman who raised him, who spent time in prison for the illegal adoption.

But he wanted to see the concentration camp where he was born, and has formed strong ties with his biological family and the many friends of his parents, most of whom live in Uruguay.

"I don’t expect everyone to understand or to agree," he says. "It’s clear to me that Carlos and Marta didn’t do things right, and I don’t agree with them. But they raised me with love, as if I was their son."

"I can’t change my feelings for them or turn the clock back. I should have grown up with Julio and Yolanda, or, given the circumstances, with my grandparents, knowing from the very start the truth about who my parents were, knowing that they loved me and never abandoned me," says Carlos.

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