The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo is a human rights organisation whose aim is to find the babies stolen during the era of the Argentine dictatorship known as the “Dirty War” (1976-83). Its president is Estela Barnes de Carlotto, about whom an award-winning film has been released.
Verdades verdaderas (“True truths” is the official translation, but “Real truths” might be closer), directed by Nicolás Gil Lavedra (Argentina, 2011), recounts part of this tragic history from the viewpoint of Estela de Carlotto. It restores some of the country’s repressed public memory, focusing on a bitter legacy of inconceivable brutality and pointing to signs of hope
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo was founded in 1977 to locate children kidnapped under the military dictatorship and return them to their biological families. The work of the Grandmothers has led to the location of over 10% of the estimated 500 children kidnapped or born in detention during the military era. In 1998, the identities of 256 missing babies were documented. Of those, 56 children have been located, seven of whom had died.
The Grandmothers’ work led to the creation of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team and the establishment of a National Genetic Data Bank. Aided by recent breakthroughs in genetic testing, the Grandmothers succeeded in returning 31 children to their biological families, while 13 others were raised jointly by their adoptive and biological families. The remaining cases are bogged down in court custody battles.
In 1976 a coup d’état by the Armed Forces forcibly removed the constitutional government of Argentina and implemented a policy of terror and human rights abuses. In just a few years, that policy resulted in a spiral of hidden and conspiratorial violence that resulted in the murder of more than 30,000 citizens of all ages and classes. Euphemistically labelled the “disappeared”, they included small children and babies who saw the light of day in detention centres like the Navy Mechanical School (Esma), the largest of nearly 400 detention and torture camps that operated in Argentina. The babies were subsequently stolen by their captors and registered as other people’s children.
Estela de Carlotto, President of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, began her long journey when the military dictatorship kidnapped her daughter Laura towards the end of 1977. “I was not a valiant person. I never took part in anything. I was a lower middle class woman, brought up in relatively gentle times. I could never have imagined that I would dedicate my whole life to this struggle,” she has said. Six months later, the military informed her that her daughter was pregnant. Then, at the end of August 1978, to complete their cruelty, they returned her daughter’s corpse denying all knowledge of the child born a few months earlier.
Estela’s tireless search for her grandson continues today. It gives her the energy and strength to carry on without capitulating. But she is not alone. Many mothers and grandmothers suffered the kidnapping and disappearance of their children and grandchildren who were subsequently registered as the children of military personnel or sold or abandoned in illegal institutions. The intention was to erase their family history and deprive them of their identity and rights.
Verdades verdaderas (True truths) is an important film for Latin America, but it also raises questions about Spain’s civil war (and perhaps elsewhere), where the children of parents murdered by the regime were also kidnapped and given away. Unfortunately, in Argentina threats against human-rights activists, survivors and families of the disappeared are still commonplace and some observers fear that extreme right-wing elements are successfully derailing the few human-rights trials now under way.
The second casualty of war may be truth. The first casualties are always women and children.