Long lost generation: Argentina’s search for infants ‘adopted’ during a dirty war
Maria Isabel Chorobik de Mariani sits in her front parlour beneath three framed photographs of her dead son, his dead wife, and her long-lost granddaughter.
Eighty-eight and mostly blind now, her weary eyes register the faint outline of those who sit near her. She kisses goodbye a former political prisoner she helped reunite with a child, many years ago. She embraces the daughter of a lawyer who aided her tireless — but ultimately fruitless — search for a part of this nation’s Stolen Baby generation.
Thirty-five years, five months and 25 days after she vanished, there is still no sign of her granddaughter, Clara Anahi.
The infant was among five hundred children believed to have been taken from their dissident parents in the late 1970s and early 1980s, many born in clandestine prisons during Argentina’s so-called dirty war. The military dictatorship’s ruthless campaign to wipe out armed leftist guerrillas would see thousands of people dragged off the streets, tortured, killed, hurled off planes into the water, or buried in unmarked graves, among them students, journalists, and other “subversives.”
Hauntingly, they are known as “the disappeared.”
The fate of the children of the disappeared has been the focus of a Buenos Aires courtroom, where dethroned and disgraced leaders of the dictatorship have been on trial for the past year. Former generals Jorge Videla, Reynaldo Bignone and other high-ranking officers are accused of carrying out a systematic plan to steal the babies of those they would erase, stripping them of their identity and in many instances giving them to sympathetic families as part of a “national process of reorganization.” A verdict is expected in June.
In a recent interview, Gen. Videla, who led the coup that installed the dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, acknowledges that youngsters were taken from their parents, but denies it was a grand scheme ordered by the highest echelons.
He has admitted to 7,000 or 8,000 disappeared in the war against “subversion”, but his confession brings no relief to relatives.
“The torture that they have put us through — it has no name, and can’t be compared to anything,” said Ms. Mariani, known as Chicha, a retired art teacher and founding member of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, a human rights group at the forefront of efforts to bring repressors to justice.
“I know of mothers who, when they finally decided to take a vacation, years after their children had disappeared, they would leave notes for them at home, just in case they came back. They left money for them in the bank. Until they died.”
But reconstructing the past has been a fraught endeavor in Argentina, pitting those who insist on shining a light on the dark truth against those who want to leave the past alone. The national government enacted a controversial law that allows courts to demand a DNA sample of someone who is suspected of being a stolen baby — even if he or she does not want to know. For the dwindling number of grandmothers, who have come up against silence, threats, and forged adoption documents, such measures are considered key to finding their progeny. For children, it takes a choice — as impossible as it may be, taking tests that could jail the only parents they have known — out of their hands.
Chicha Mariani’s life changed on Nov. 24, 1976, as she sat in her living room knitting a pink jacket for Clara Anahi.
A few blocks away, the artillery had amassed outside her son’s home, known as the House of Rabbits because he raised and sold the animals. Daniel Mariani, an economist, and his wife, Diana Teruggi, a graduate student, were members of the guerrilla group Montoneros. Their modest abode also secretly housed one of the most powerful weapons militants had during their rebellion: a printing press.
The armed forces’ response on that little house would be fierce, lasting three hours and leaving a gaping hole in the front wall.
Diana and four comrades died in the attack. Daniel had gone to Buenos Aires, and would be killed eight months later.
The baby, it was said in hushed tones, had miraculously survived, triggering a frantic and consuming search by Ms. Mariani that has lasted to this day. It led her to other women on a similar hunt and together they formed a secret association that turned grieving mothers into lauded activists, grandmothers into detectives. The advent of DNA testing in the early 1980s allowed them to make positive identifications, and so far 105 children have found out who they really are, the most recent a doctor with two children of her own.
For Ms. Mariani, only recently have witnesses come forward to say the three month old was taken out of the house, alive, although convicted officers still deny it. Dozens of women have knocked on her door over the years, believing — hoping — they were Clara Anahi, sending the grandmother’s spirits soaring, and then crashing to earth.
Ms. Mariani also found herself in the middle of the most contentious case of suspected stolen babies, that of Marcela and Felipe Noble. They are the adopted children of the woman who owns the largest media conglomerate in the country, Clarin Group, a critical voice against the governments of Cristina Kirchner and her deceased husband Nestor.
Ernestina Herrera de Noble has said that Marcela was left in a cardboard box on her doorstep in 1976; a woman who faked her identity handed Felipe over to a court for adoption. Ms. Mariani was convinced Marcela was her missing granddaughter.
After a protracted ten-year court battle, and a video message from the wealthy heirs begging the government to stop “using” them to “attack” their mother, Marcela and Felipe voluntarily underwent tests that compared their DNA with a databank of relatives of people disappeared in 1975 and 1976. Officials said there wasn’t a match. (The genetic profiles of three families are not complete, leaving the possibility they could be linked to the Noble children, the Grandmothers say.) Activists want the DNA compared with other years.
Back in La Plata, the House of Rabbits is still standing. Ms. Mariani has converted it into a museum run by the Association Anahi, a group she started after leaving the Grandmothers. One sunny afternoon in February, Lucia Abbattista and Clara Basualdo gave a reporter a tour of the bullet-riddled building, pointing out the hidden printing press quarters, and where Diana Teruggi collapsed, fatally wounded, next to a lemon tree.
“There are moments when it really feels like the climate has changed, that one can talk about these things, ask questions, really repudiate the repressors and the society that they built,” said Ms. Abbattista, whose mother went to school with Diana. “But then when you think about the case of Clara Anahi, just like that of all the grandchildren who have never been found, what allows them to still be appropriated is silence, fear, or the belief that they are still better off with the families that have raised them. Those are voices that you will hear at any family reunion, at any meal. That’s still a polarizing issue.”
Ms. Mariani finds some comfort in the fact that had she found her granddaughter right away, she never would have helped dozens of others find their biological families.
“Since the beginning, I thought that I had to dedicate every minute to searching for Clara Anahi, at first because I thought I was just about to find her, and I was going to dedicate my life to raising her,” says Ms. Mariani. “It’s very different now. If I find her, she will have her life and I would know not to interfere, or bug her with things. I would tell her about her family, her roots. I have a lot of things to tell her about. And if I go before I find her, good friends of mine will continue the search.”