It's a parent's worst nightmare: a son or a daughter disappears, with no clues, no explanation and no likelihood of ever finding out what happened.
In Argentina, during that country's military dictatorship from 1976 through 1983, 30,000 persons were "disappeared," including 300-500 infants and children.
One mother whose daughter was disappeared was Mirta Maravalle. On August 27, 1977, as she tells the story, soldiers carrying machine guns and wearing ski masks burst into the house and seized her daughter, Ana Marie, 28, and her husband, 25.
"My daughter was five months pregnant," Maravalle says. "The soldiers took her and her husband away right in front of my eyes. I'm not sure why. My daughter studied sociology and worked in the Ministry of Economy."
From the day her daughter was kidnapped until she delivered her baby, Maravalle heard nothing. All she knew was that Ana Marie's due date was January 15.
On January 12, 1977, a friend came at 11 at night with news that the baby had been born. The messenger had to leave quickly as it was dangerous to be caught out late at night. Later, that friend was disappeared.
As Maravalle began searching for clues about her daughter, she met other mothers seeking information about their disappeared children, known in Spanish as los desaparecidos (the disappeared ones). Fourteen of them began to gather in the plaza, wearing white kerchiefs symbolizing babies' diapers. When soldiers placed rifles in their backs and told them to move along, they began to walk.
Thus began weekly walks on Thursdays at 3:30 in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo. This year marks 30 continuous years of those demonstrations. Walking with Mirta Maravalle, now 82, on a hot and humid afternoon in January was Elia Espen, 75. Her son, Hugo Orlando Meadan, was 27 when he went off to study and never came back.
She then joined the mothers marching in the square, Hugo's photo hanging from her neck. Eventually two students recognized the photo. One had been imprisoned with her son, and later released. Reluctantly, and only when she insisted, he told her that Hugo had been tortured until he went mad. Then he was tossed from an airplane into the ocean.
"All this terror and atrocities and yet no one has been punished," she says, her voice trembling. "That's why I work with this group, Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), and why I march on Thursdays, and why I will as long as I have life in my body."
Later, other groups formed, each with a different philosophy or emphasis. Through its "partner church" relationship with the Evangelical Church of the Disciples of Christ in Argentina, Global Ministries of the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) supports the mothers and grandmothers.
One group, Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, consists of grandmothers (abuelas) seeking their grandchildren. If pregnant women were kidnapped, they were kept alive until they delivered. Then their babies were given to military officers' families to be raised in homes with conservative values.
Estela Barnes de Carlotto, its president, has worked with this group since 1977, when her 20-year-old daughter, Laura, and her husband were kidnapped. Her son-in-law was killed immediately, Carlotto says, "but Laura was kept in a concentration camp until she gave birth on June 26, 1978, to a boy whom she named Guido, after my husband. She held the baby in her arms for only a few hours before they took it away from her. Two months later she was killed. The police brought me the body."
That event changed Carlotto's life dramatically. She quit her job as head mistress of a primary school and has been looking for her grandson ever since.
As of January, the grandmothers have located 78 "disappeared" grandchildren. They do research, launch investigations, go to court, harass government officials, give speeches, place ads, print leaflets and posters, share information, go to international events, demonstrate publicly, and reach out to 20- and 30-somethings.
They also have established a genetic data bank in Seattle for DNA testing. Such testing led Rosa Tarlovsky de Roisinblit, the Abuelas' vice-president, to discover her 22-year-old grandson.
"The dictatorship never imagined," she says, "that just because they kidnapped a few children, an organization such as this would emerge and still be looking for the missing children 30 years later."
Graffiti in Spanish at the Plaza de Mayo captures the will energizing the search. "Las unicas luchas que se pierden son las se abandonan," it says. ("The only causes that fail are those that are abandoned.")
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. He and his wife, Deborah, demonstrated with the mothers and grandmothers in Buenos Aires in January.
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