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Cry for Me, Argentina

Brass Tacks

By Kristin A. Goss

It was a particularly chilly Thursday in late June, the beginning of the Argentine winter. A group of 60- and 70-year-old women who had told a whole government to go to hell when nobody else had such courage would soon converge upon the plaza to reiterate their silent demands, the same demands they had made of three governments before the present one.

It has been a little better than nine years since these women began their weekly marches outside Government House in downtown Buenos Aires to demand information on their "disappeared" children. For the first six years, when a ruthless military dictatorship ruled the land, they were ridiculed as "the Crazy Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" because they weren't silent like all the rest. For the last three years, in which Argentina has enjoyed a return to democratic rule, the mothers of the plaza have continued to don their characteristic white kerchiefs to issue more broad (some will say more ill-defined) demands for social justice.

But the organization, which has gained international renown especially in the wake of the Oscar-winning movie "The Official Story," also recently suffered an unfortunate split over what are popularly rumored to be irreconcilable differences between its two leaders, both in personality and, more importantly, in sense of the group's mission. The main group, led by Hebe de Bonafini, has become fiercely and broadly political; while the small splinter group of Adela Antokaletz, it is said, has preferred to adhere to the original goal of gaining information on the disappeared. Neither side will discuss the other, but it is popularly rumored that Bonafini's hardline attitudes and bickering over money matters are largely to blame for alienating the more moderate faction. It is also becoming more apparent that the larger group of mothers no longer enjoys the same popularity and worship they gained after the ill-fated Falkland Islands War, when the government was doomed and human rights protests became safe--and fashionable.

But still, they gather.

Just before 3:30 each afternoon, it is possible to witness the changing of the guard in front of President Raul Alfonsin's headquarters. These soldiers, in full regalia, strike an odd contrast to the graying women as they begin to amass in the square, kissing each other on the cheeks and hanging photographs of missing children around each other's necks.

In the old days, these demonstrations were illegal, the mothers were harassed and arrested, and some, including the group's founder, vanished like their children. Critics today argue, with some validity, that the mothers got away with what they did because their demands were more humanistic than political, and because Argentine society tends, like most of Latin America, to worship the mother as an extension of the Virgin Mary. (In Spanish, the phenomenon is known as marianismo.) But the undeniable fact is that, in a society in which the newspapers (with one exception) were silent, the courts were a farce, the police formed an arm of the military government and members of opposition groups were being tortured and murdered in some 340 clandestine, Naziesque concentration camps, the mothers were the only group that forced the people of Argentina to face a horror they would have rather continued to ignore.

As the bitter June wind began to pick up, most of the human traffic scurrying through the plaza probably wondered why these women continue. It is now generally accepted in Argentina that the military liquidated all remaining political prisioners and their traces shortly before the nation hosted the 1978 World Soccer Cup. In all, it is estimated that anywhere between 8,000 and 30,000 people "disappeared" during the military's 1976-1979 "dirty war" against left wing extremism. It is also generally accepted that the vast majority of them were completely innocent and in fact had no ties to guerrilla groups. We will never know: not one was ever tried in a court of law.

As the women began arriving and tying their kerchiefs, the statement that tumbled first off their lips was, "We feel powerless."

One might be ready to believe them, after nine years and no answers. Then the demonstration began. Somehow a small handful of elderly women had grown into a force of some 400 people. About 120 of them wore kerchiefs; the rest, men, women and children, marched in solidarity. The walked a slow, symbolic circle around a small obelisk dedicated to Argentine independence from Spain, and at the end they gathered around a bullhorn through which one member delivered an impassioned speech about the government's recent decision to take pending human rights complaints out of the hands of military tribunals and give them over to the civilian courts.

For many of the mothers this is the focus of the week. Some faithfully travel several hours to the city to take part. Others trek the 10 blocks from their office, which they call, in a motherly way, their "house--the large and impressive second floor of a building located a stone's throw away from the Congress. Its walls bear the eerie reminder of the dirty war: thousands of black and white snap-shots, each with a name and a date, hang in solemn rows behind protective glass; and the shelves of an overflowing glass case sag under the weight of homemade trinkets sent to the mothers as gifts of moral support from all over the world. Here the mothers meet and work. Here they write the speeches that cap off their weekly protests. Here they plan and write their monthly newspaper--a professional-looking montage of interviews and articles which they began in 1983 in reaction to an establishment press that, with one noble exception, had for six years refused to note their presence.

The newspaper, called simply "Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo," reflects an extremism that has begun to characterize the mothers nine years later. It is not particularly objective and not entirely reliable. It also reflects a bitterness to which the mothers are certainly entitled, but which has unfortunately alienated many.

The mothers now, three years into stable, democratic rule, flounder precariously between their status as a movement and a political pressure group. To the outside world, it is tempting to term their current situation an identity crisis, though the mothers would firmly disagree. Argentina is a nation where movements rapidly, sometimes underhandedly, sometimes violently, turn into governments. (The most outstanding example is that of dictator Juan Domingo Peron, who managed to unite the most curious mixture of labor unions, fascist military men, left-wing guerrillas and a host of other disparate elements into a movement that has lost its cohesion in the 31 years since Peron was overthrown and in the 12 years since he enjoyed another brief stint as head of state before he died in 1974.) And while Bonafini insists that the group has no plans to become an official political party or propose a candidate for Congress, their broadening political scope has begun to lead some pundits to such speculation.

While sticking to their original demands that the military be punished and that information on the disappeared be released, the mothers have broadened their political profile to become visible spokesmen for the left wing. Journalists regularly contact their offices, like those of the five or six political parties and splinter factions, for reaction to current events. The mothers voiced strident and widely publicized opposition in July, for example, when the church and other anti-divorce groups held a moderately successful "march for the defense of the family" in anticipation of congressional debate on a divorce bill (Argentina is one of a small handful of countries where it is still illegal).

The mothers' politicization and vowed isolation from other political groups is rooted in the events of the dirty war. They still refuse to associate with the CGT--the main labor union, which, in the wake of Peron, remains at the forefront of Argentine politics--because they say it propped up the government's reign of terror. They shun other political parties, left and right, for the same reason.

To some extent, their charges are valid. But then again, in a society in which security forces snatched people off the street in broad daylight simply because they shared a last name with someone the government suspected of having guerrilla connections, in which the economy is 60 percent government controlled and most depend on Government House to put their daily bread on the table, and in which years of military dictatorship have left the lesson that if you are quiet and obedient you will survive, everyone to a certain extent condoned the military. Everyone was both a victim and an accomplice. Except the mothers.

And, having lost everything except their cause, they will not let Argentina forget.

Says Bonafini: "Every time there are violations, we go out to demonstrate, and as we are a strong movement, we will succeed. We always have to be on our guard so it doesn't happen again."

"We are not fighting over whether our children are alive or dead. We have a much more wide-ranging fight," she continues. "We are looking for justice, and all that that might mean: That people not forget. And besides that, the vindication of our children who after so many years were considered terrorists--this is our most important task."

The mothers came together in mutual sorrow and desperation. They became friends while spending long nights in the Plaza de Mayo hoping to be one of 10 people each day "permitted" to request information from the Interior Minstry about their missing children. They never got the news they sought. They still know nothing, other than what is obvious after nine years, that their children are dead (though even this they have trouble accepting). In a society in which the family is a sacred institution (opposing divorce is translated as "defending the family") and women still define themselves in terms of their success in bearing and rearing children, losing one's children means, literally, losing everything.

Bonafini, a large woman of tremendous inner strength and rigid convictions, lost both her sons within 10 months of each other in 1977. She, like so many others, turned to the mothers organization, which allowed her to pour her heart and soul into the quest for justice and posthumous vindication of her children. It also gave these women a support group, a voice, a way of forgetting loneliness while forcing Argentina to acknowledge, then remember, the horror. The mothers carried their despair to Pope John Paul II and to political leaders worldwide; they became the focus of a couple of movies and a handful of books (including Bonafini's autobiography); the world listened when Argentina did not.

Now, Bonafini says, the mothers' is a "fight for the morality of this country, which is no more and no less than to defend life. And to defend so strongly the lives of our children, one must defend the lives of all citizens of this country."

Their June 19 demonstration, like the hundreds that came before it, lasted half an hour. Unlike nine years ago, the aging women attract little attention from harried passersby, and the police don't pay them so much as a nod. They walk peacefully, unconcerned, and use the time to chat with each other, catching up on the week's news. By now, the mothers are accustomed to the inevitable photographs of tourists and are eager to tell their story to anyone who will stop to listen. Each one, after all, has her story, as do eight, ten, twenty, thirty thousand other Argentine mothers. They recite their disappeared child's full name, occupation and date of disappearance quickly and emphatically as if rehearsed a hundred times.

It remains to be seen whether democracy will be able to give the mothers what they seek. For all their diverse political concerns, they have stuck steadfastly to their demand for information about their children's fate. President Alfonsin has thus far been unable to crack the SIDE, the state intelligence service. Nobody knows whether any records still exist, or whether they were destroyed, like so many lives, before the 1978 World Cup whitewash.

One mother, whose 36-year-old playwright son "disappeared" in 1976 because three years earlier he had sublet his apartment to a stranger who turned out to be an alleged guerrilla, wrote in her diary: "For a mother, hope never dies...No matter how tired and disappointed, the will to fight increases with every defeat."

"For us distraught mothers, there is no cure, and mystery only makes our trial worse."

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