Women, children, and public memory are the first casualties of war

The abduction of babies from their mothers is a crime that has no justification. Denying that such a crime is either conceivable or takes place diminishes our common humanity.

Under military regimes in Latin America, thousands of people were “disappeared” – never to be seen again. Parents were taken with their young children. Pregnant women disappeared and their babies were born in captivity. Many of those children were given to families that had close ties to the repressive regimes. After the transition to democracy, the families of the disappeared started looking not only for their sons and daughters, but also for those babies born in captivity. The search was very difficult and, even when the children were found, years had already passed in which they had been raised in their new illegitimate families.

In Argentina, after 35 years of campaigning and legal action by the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo the first trial over the systematic theft of babies of political prisoners during the 1976-83 military dictatorship began in March 2011. In the dock were former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla (right in photo); the last head of the military junta, Reynaldo Bignone (left in photo); five prominent army, navy, and coast guard officers; and one civilian doctor. Some 30,000 people vanished during Argentina’s “dirty war”. The eight defendants faced specimen charges of taking, retaining, hiding and changing the identities of 34 children born to political prisoners held in clandestine prisons under the dictatorship.

The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo emerged in the late 1970s as a breakaway group of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, which was founded to demand that their missing sons and daughters be returned to them. The specific aim of the Grandmothers was to track down their lost grandchildren, who were either born in captivity or kidnapped as babies or toddlers and illegally adopted by military or civilian families.

Similar events are currently under way in Spain, where judges are investigating charges that infants were abducted and sold for adoption over a 40-year period between 1950 and 1990. The New York Times (17 July 2011) reports that, “What may have begun as political retaliation against leftist families during the right-wing dictatorship of General Francisco Franco appears to have mutated into a trafficking business in which doctors, nurses and even nuns colluded with criminal networks. Cases could run into the thousands.” In 2008 judge Baltasar Garzón (currently suspended from duties) had extended an investigation into allegations of crimes committed during the Franco era to examine whether Franco had ordered babies to be taken from women who supported republican opposition during Spain’s savage civil war.

“Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for freedom …. in its turn to bear seed, Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the rains and the snows nourish,” wrote Walt Whitman (1850). It’s a lesson worth remembering. Each year the International Day of the Disappeared falls on August 30, drawing public attention to those people who have been imprisoned without their friends or relatives knowing where or why. It also highlights the work of organisations that campaign against secret imprisonment and work to support the “disappeared” and their families. The mass media play a crucial role in such efforts. The more people know, the better they are able to fight injustice, the better they are able to right wrong – a precept often overlooked in a world anxious to “move on”.

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