Answers trickle through for progeny of Argentina's 'disappeared'


LETTER FROM BUENOS AIRES:Many children taken from parents during the dictatorship are at last reuniting with families, writes SOPHIE PARKER

FRANCISCO IS a year older than me. I imagine he likes a good night out with his friends, a lie-in at weekends, and a decent football derby. Perhaps he, like me, rearranged the sticky squares on a Rubik’s cube in frustration as a child, or shuffled awkwardly in a Nirvana T-shirt around the objects of his teenage crushes. I’ll bet he counted the clock in maths class or in an uninspiring job.

Like many young adults, he wondered about who he was and where he was going. His questions, however, led him to a life-changing discovery and an emotional reunion with a father he never knew existed.

Francisco has been known by various names. One of them is nieto (grandchild) 101, a moniker earned as the one hundred and first child of Argentina’s Disappeared to be identified by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo association (Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo). It was to this group that Francisco turned when his questions regarding his origins became serious doubts – little knowing that his biological father was working as secretary of this very organisation.

The grandmothers know about questions. They have been asking them for years, determined to uncover the whereabouts of their children – who were forcibly disappeared during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship – and of their grandchildren, who were born in captivity or snatched when their ill-fated parents were kidnapped, and given to government sympathisers or military families.

In attempting to recover their own children, the grandmothers were always going to have the odds stacked against them: although some survived imprisonment and torture, many of Argentina’s “disappeared” were drugged and thrown from aircraft into the Río de la Plata during the dictatorship’s “death flights”. But the grandmothers have reunited numerous grandchildren with their biological families.

Until recently, Francisco was known as Alejandro, the name chosen by the individuals who appropriated him as a newborn from the clandestine torture centre where his mother was held. Growing up, Francisco felt he didn’t belong in this family to whose members he bore no physical resemblance and whose patriarch, a former military intelligence officer, Francisco has claimed was violent.

In February, he approached the grandmothers. A sample of his blood was checked against DNA of relatives of the disappeared stored at the National Genetic Data Bank (an institution set up, in great part, thanks to the grandmothers’ lobbying), and the results showed he was the son of one of the disappeared, Silvia Quintela, and of the organisation’s secretary, Quintela’s husband, Abel Madariaga.

Following his pregnant wife’s abduction in 1977, Madariaga – a member, like Quintela, of the leftist Montoneros group – fled the country, returning when democracy was restored in 1983 and joining the grandmothers as their first male affiliate. As secretary of the association, he would have participated in the recovery of individuals of his own son’s age; as an Argentinian, he would have heard the song Yo Soy Juan (I am Juan), composed by the well known local musician León Gieco and inspired by Juan Cabandié, one of these people.

Cabandié was born in March 1978 at the Navy School of Mechanics (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) in Buenos Aires, a place whose name, or simply its more common acronym, ESMA, inspires regret and repulsion in Argentinians. One of the most notorious torture centres used during the country’s so-called dirty war, the ESMA is now a memorial museum.

Like Francisco, Cabandié was taken from his imprisoned mother and given to a couple with whom he lived until adulthood, believing they were his biological parents. Since the recuperation of his identity, Cabandié has gone on to become a Buenos Aires city legislator. His parents remain disappeared.

Bringing to justice those responsible for the murders and kidnappings perpetrated during Argentina’s dictatorship is an ongoing process. Juan Cabandié has testified against the abusive former federal police officer who masqueraded as his father, and two years ago, a young woman named María Eugenia Sampallo Barragán – another of the dirty war’s stolen babies – saw the couple who raised her given jail sentences after she brought them to trial.

Francisco has spoken of the sense of relief he felt on discovering his true identity. For some children of Argentina’s disappeared, however, the truth provokes conflicting feelings: there are those who have experienced happier upbringings and cannot ignore the genuine affection they received from their adoptive families.

For most of us, the idea of learning that you have been brought up by impostors, who may also have been involved in the disappearance of your real parents, is the stuff of fiction. In Argentina, however, it’s a reality.

The grandmothers are continuing with their search. On the organisation’s website, images of the disappeared are accompanied by the actual or estimated month and year of birth of their children. Raquel, one of the group’s founding members, already knows what she will cook her grandchild if she ever meets him or her: schnitzel and chips. Estela, president of the association, has a collection of photos and various objects to show her grandson. Among these items is an enamelled plaque with his name, Guido, on it. One day she hopes to hang it on his door.