Children of a dirty war

Argentina struggles with the legacy of a horrible crime

Amaranta Wright and Linda Robinson

U.S. News & World Report
DECEMBER 7, 1998

BUENOS AIRES--Silvia Quintela was four months pregnant when she was taken to a secret detention center just outside Argentina's capital. It was 1977, the height of the so-called dirty war in which Argentina's military government jailed, tortured, and killed between 10,000 and 30,000 of its own citizens because of their alleged leftist sympathies. But the fate of pregnant women like Quintela was particularly cruel. When they went into labor, they were blindfolded, wheeled into a military hospital, and killed shortly after giving birth. Then their babies were given away to soldiers and police officers.

The aim of this monstrous adoption plan was to ensure that the next generation of Argentines would not be infected with subversive ideas. To a shocking degree, it worked: An estimated 200 to 500 of these stolen children are now young adults, but many do not realize that they were stolen, and some of those who do know the truth are, nevertheless, adamant defenders of the military families who raised them.

Quintela's husband, Abel Madariaga, survived his wife's death and has been searching for their child ever since. Now he believes that he has found his son, a 21-year-old who he says is the spitting image of his late wife. But the young man, Pablo Bianco, wants nothing to do with Madariaga. He refuses to take a blood test to verify his paternity, and two years ago he literally shut his front door in Madariaga's face. "I have my father. I don't want another one," Bianco said on Argentine television.

Trial. To make this situation even more agonizing, the man who raised Pablo is Norberto Bianco, an Army doctor who is accused of delivering many of the babies and keeping two--Pablo and a girl named Carolina--for himself. The elder Bianco is in jail awaiting trial in a case that is forcing not just Pablo and Carolina Bianco but the entire nation to search its conscience and reconsider its identity. The key defendant is Gen. Jorge Videla, who headed the military junta that ruled from 1976 to 1983 and was arrested in June on charges of ordering the baby trade. Last week, another member of the former junta, Adm. Emilio Massera, also was arrested for the alleged abduction of babies in detention camps run by the Argentine Navy. If convicted, all three men could be sentenced to life in prison.

Argentina is just one of several Latin American countries where military regimes trampled human rights in the 1970s and early '80s. Most of the perpetrators are protected by amnesties intended to allow a transition to democracy. But many victims and their families are determined to get some measure of justice. In Argentina, they are led by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization that searches for people who disappeared in the dirty war. With the help of blood samples and a genetic data bank, it has already reunited 41 stolen babies with their biological kin.

Although Videla and other junta members were pardoned by President Carlos Menem in 1990, an Argentine judge has ruled that the pardons did not cover baby stealing. Videla's lawyers are appealing that ruling, but in the meantime, the 72-year-old former dictator is under house arrest and pre-trial hearings are proceeding. Separately, a Spanish judge is seeking to extradite the entire Argentine junta and Chile's ex-dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to face trial in Madrid (box, Page 36).

Many Argentines have been aghast at pre-trial testimony in the Videla-Bianco-Massera case. Nurses, obstetricians, and other hospital workers have recounted how women gave birth while chained to their beds and sometimes begged in vain to hold their babies. According to one poll in Buenos Aires, 74 percent of the capital's residents now want abuses from the dirty war to be investigated and prosecuted. And crowds gather nightly outside Videla's home to jeer the old general.

While the question of how to deal with the past plagues all of Argentina, the most excruciating dilemmas are faced by the young adults known as the "children of the disappeared." They must cope simultaneously with the awful fate of their biological parents and with their attachment to those who raised them, often lovingly. The central question is: Should these children be reunited with their biological families by court order? The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo answer, unequivocally, "Yes." But some of the children say, "No."

Runaways. Pablo and Carolina Bianco, for example, have fled to neighboring Paraguay to avoid taking court-ordered blood tests. Her eyes flashing, Carolina turned on a television crew that confronted her last summer. "It's not true what they are saying. It has not been proven," she said. "I don't care about Videla. All I want is my father and mother back."

Madariaga, who believes he is Pablo's real father, is sympathetic. "We realize that it's difficult for them," he says. "Facing the truth means realizing that the people they think they love have filled their heads with lies. But it is the lie, not our search, that is damaging them."

Elena Gallinaris was tracked down by her grandmother and uncle when she was 10. Blood tests proved they were related, and all of a sudden, a judge told her about her birth. Now 21, her loyalties are firmly with her blood relatives. She says the first decade of her life was a cheerless time, living with a policeman and his wife who slapped her for the slightest infraction.

Gallinaris now wants to learn everything she can about her dead parents. Comfort comes in piles of newspaper cuttings and photos from the '70s. She spends hours going through them, imagining her mother and father, how they dressed, what issues they would have discussed. Her longing for them is in sharp contrast to the attitude of Carolina and Pablo Bianco, who use the term "subversives" when they talk about the people they are told are their biological parents.

A common dread. Elena does have one thing in common with Carolina and Pablo: She dreads the Videla-Bianco-Massera trial--but for different reasons. As she hears midwives testify how they attended births, she fights off images of her mother broken by torture, blindfolded, and tied down. One midwife recalled that a military doctor congratulated a mother as he carried her child away. Another midwife, Rosalinda Salguero, described a mother pleading to nurse her baby just one time: "I remember her saying, 'Dear child, we will never see each other again,' then she gave me her child, and I took it to where the others were. The next day the woman was gone."

The trial is pushing other adoptees toward traumatic crossroads. Julieta de Petrillo, 18, has a military birth certificate, and she knows that her adoptive mother worked as a midwife in a detention center. "I'm just scared that they will take me away from home," she says. "My mother did everything for me. She says I am not the daughter of subversives, and I believe her." But, she adds, she has decided to take a blood test to be sure.

De Petrillo's turmoil has been compounded by the press, which has published her photo alongside those of strangers alleged to be her real parents. "I just wish they would leave me alone," she says.

Some young Argentines in similar straits have formed a support group called HIJOS. Others try to insulate themselves. Carlos D'Elia, 17, has asked the press to forget him, HIJOS to give him time, and his biological grandmother not to speak out. He was devastated when his military parents were sent to jail and has only just begun to form bonds with his new family. Like other children of the disappeared, D'Elia suddenly has been confronted with a past he either never knew or tried to avoid. But, in truth, all of Argentina is in that position.

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