I find it difficult to watch the news these days. Seeing war looming in the Ukraine, the violent advance of the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq and the destruction in Gaza on my TV screen often leaves me lost for words. Any reasonable resolutions to the conflicts seem a long way off. Which makes it all the more pleasing to hear some good news from Argentina. My friend Cristina gets in touch, telling me that she was standing in the queue in a shop in Buenos Aires and cried tears of joy when her daughter told her what had happened. It’s a development that affects us all, great swathes of Argentine society as well as those of us who have been working to bring about justice for the crimes of the Argentine military dictatorship. Guido Montoya Carlotto, who had been missing for over thirty years, has been found.
During the dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, 30,000 oppositionists – actual or purported – were tortured, disappeared and murdered by the Argentine military. But their litany of crimes did not end there. The military also appropriated around five hundred of their victims’ children. Many of those detained by the regime were pregnant women, but their condition did not spare them from the electroshocks and other forms of torture administered to prisoners. The women, usually bound at the hands and feet, were left to give birth in delivery wards within the torture camps. Once the child was born the mothers were killed and their infants transferred to military families and sympathizers. And so, just as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been protesting for justice and truth for their disappeared children, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have been working to uncover the fate of their disappeared grandchildren. The rudimentary dossiers put together in the early years grew into an extensive collection of files and databases complete with photos and genetic records. In 1989 work began on a comprehensive DNA databank. Pressure from the Playa grandmothers eventually resulted in criminal trials against military officials for their roles in the organized abduction of children.
Public appeals were made, calling on anyone born during the dictatorship who suspected that the people who raised them may not have been their natural parents to come forward and check the genetic database. That’s what happened in the case of Guido Carlotto, the grandson of Estela de Carlotto and the 114th grandchild to be found and identified, or recuperado, as the grandmothers call it. The military at the time were aiming to do more than eliminate their opponents physically, they also wanted to eradicate their memory and their liberal, left ideas from all future generations. That’s why, for the human rights movement, establishing the fate and reconstructing the identities of those who were disappeared and murdered and rediscovering the lost grandchildren also represent political acts. Every reclaimed grandchild is a little victory within the broader picture of a crushing oppression.
Guido’s grandmother, incidentally, is a woman of note in her own right: Estela Guido Carlotto, the charismatic white-haired grande dame of the human rights scene has led the Abuelas for decades and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize on a number occasions, though she has faced criticism in recent years on account of her political closeness to president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
At their eagerly awaited first press conference, Carlotto indicated the kind of burden that now rests on the shoulders of Guido, describing him as “our grandson, my grandson, the grandson of all of us”. Guido, a prematurely greying leather-jacketed music teacher from the provinces, was jubilant but visibly nervous as he faced the cameras and answered scores of questions from journalists about his life and how he felt about what had happened. He said that while he still felt like Ignacio, the name he had grown up with, and wished to be addressed by that name, he had also gotten somewhat used to Guido, his new old name.
(A whole series of stories on the fate of other grandchildren can be found in Analía Argento’s rather subjective account De Vuelta a Casa: Historias de Hijos y Nietos Restituidos, published in Germany in 2010 under the title “Paula, du bist Laura”).