Those Who Were Left Behind by Argentina’s “Dirty War”
Andrea Yaryura Clark Reconnects With Her Generation in Buenos Aires
In 1995, a former commander of Argentina’s Air Force publicly confessed to drugging political prisoners and throwing them out of airplanes during the country’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. Tens of thousands of people, known as the “disappeared,” were kidnapped, tortured and killed during this period, but the security forces responsible for the atrocities went largely unpunished. I had moved back to Buenos Aires and was working as a television producer when the commander’s confession hit the newsstands.
By this time, much had already been written about the university students, working class people, political activists, professionals, and intellectuals who were forcibly disappeared by the regime. Many, including my own father, had chosen to leave Argentina voluntarily to escape the instability or avoid the danger of possible persecution, while around half a million had been forced into exile. Relatively little was known, however, about the sons and daughters left behind—who were just then coming of age.
A human rights lawyer put me in contact with Familiares, an organization for families of the detained or disappeared. When I phoned the organization, I was told that a group of young people was meeting on Thursday nights at their headquarters near the National Congress. The group called itself HIJOS, an acronym that translates to “Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence.”
The first evening I walked into an HIJOS meeting in the unadorned basement of the Familiares building, I encountered a few people standing around chatting and passing around a gourd filled with mate tea drunk from a metal straw. I approached a friendly woman, Patricia, who appeared to be in charge. When I introduced myself, I tried to briefly explain why I was there. I realized in that moment, hearing the hesitation in my own words, that my reasons were unclear even to me.
My own family left Buenos Aires for North America several months before the military coup of March 24, 1976. By then, Argentina had been in a state of turmoil for several years. Political violence had escalated following Juan Domingo Perón’s return to the country in 1973. Reassuming the presidency after two decades in exile, the old caudillo had quietly supported the emergence of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (AAA), a clandestine para-military group that targeted leftist urban guerrillas, but also labor union members and organizers, social activists, artists, intellectuals and left-leaning individuals. The death squads operated with near total impunity in the years leading up to the coup, laying the groundwork for the wider-scale repression that would follow under the military junta later that decade.
Before our departure, my father, a psychiatrist, had been approached by government agents with a request to perform psychiatric evaluations of political prisoners. He turned down the offer. My father was also a writer, and his editor from the publishing house Ediciones de La Flor had been disappeared around the same time. My father’s latest manuscript would have been in his editor’s office, potentially putting my father at risk.
After the coup, the armed forces would detain, interrogate, torture and disappear a large number of psychiatrists and psychotherapists because of the possibly valuable information that would have been confided to them by their supposedly subversive patients. Fortunately, we left before this might have happened.
I did not share all of this with Patricia as we talked in the basement meeting room, but she was kindly receptive to my vague explanation and invited me to sit next to her. We sat on metal straight-backed chairs and people went around the room introducing themselves. Some spoke confidently. “My name is Nicolas, I’m 19 and my mother is a desaparecida.” Others spoke in voices conveying pain. “I’m Malena. My parents were held captive in ESMA.”
Centrally located in the city of Buenos Aires, ESMA, the former Higher School of the Mechanics of the Navy, housed the most notorious clandestine torture center of the dictatorship. When it was my turn to speak, I said that my family had moved to North America when I was a child. I had returned to live after college and wanted to learn more about what had happened to the people of my generation affected by the so-called Dirty War.
Almost everyone was smoking in the windowless room, and the mate tea continued to be passed around. Most of the attendants were in their twenties. Some were dressed in business attire while others wore t-shirts and jeans. A few carried book bags, having come straight from high school or a university class.
As the introductions continued, a couple of jokes eased the tension, and the conversations became more fluid. At one point someone from the back of the room asked a young woman: “Who raised you?”
“Mi abuela.” My grandmother.
This was a common answer. During the dictatorship, parents were not only desperately looking for their missing adult children, but they also found themselves in the role of primary caregivers to their grandchildren. Some of these family members went on to form the Madres de Plaza de Mayo and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the two main human rights organizations who marched bravely in front of the presidential palace every Thursday, starting in 1977, demanding accountability and the return of their children.
As the HIJOS’ meeting came to end, my reason for being there was suddenly clear. I would accompany these sons and daughters over the next months, learn their stories and, if possible, record them. Those I approached were eager to talk and agreed to let me interview them. Few had ever shared their experiences in public before, yet all but one wanted their real names to be used. “It would be awful to think that we still have to hide from who we are and where we come from,” one told me.
Recurring themes of peril, denial and deceit, and uncertain identity permeated the heartbreaking narratives I recorded over the subsequent months. Some told me their caregivers lied to them for years about their parents’ whereabouts, hoping to shield the children from their parents’ true fates. Others had to lie to neighbors, teachers and friends in order to maintain false identities.
Patricia was a little girl when she learned to take on several new identities as her father, part of a leftist guerrilla group, moved the family from place to place, trying to stay one step ahead of government agents. When her father eventually disappeared, his girlfriend took her and her two sisters to live with three adults who posed as their grandparents and uncle. Several weeks later, these adults were also disappeared, and the girls were left alone to fend for themselves.
One day, four armed men burst into the house. Patricia and her sisters had continued using fake names, but the men seemed to know who they were anyway. “We won’t kill you,” one of the men told the girls once the interrogation was over. “We want you to live so that you can tell others what we’re capable of doing.”
Nicolas was three years old when he was kidnapped with his mother. Somehow, he then ended up living with two female police officers. One day, while they were watching television, Nicolas pointed to the screen and said, “That’s my aunt.” His grandmother and aunt were well-known television actors. The police officers realized it would be too risky to keep Nicolas as their own and he was soon returned to his grandmother and aunt.Recurring themes of peril, denial and deceit, and uncertain identity permeated the heartbreaking narratives I recorded over the subsequent months.
Some hijos told me they used to be certain that their missing parent(s) would magically appear on the child’s birthday. With their parents’ return, the children believed that the world would feel safe again and that they would no longer feel like outsiders. I also learned that security agents would frequently plan abductions to take place on the victim’s birthday (or on other key dates such as wedding anniversaries). Fernando’s father was kidnapped on his real birthday, not the one on his birth certificate (which was off by a few days due to a clerical error). This made Fernando believe that a close friend had betrayed his dad.
Guido’s mother was kidnapped on March 25, 1976, the day after the coup. His grandparents, who supported the military junta, raised Guido without ever uttering his mother’s name. Years later, Guido found out that the car repair shop he walked by every day had doubled as a clandestine detention center. Garage Olimpo, as the shop was called, would become infamous for its brutal interrogation tactics and Guido would wonder if his mother had been held captive there, tortured and killed, while he naively strolled by. These thoughts would plague him for a very long time. Daily life went on as usual right outside or inside the doors of the clandestine detention centers, such as at ESMA, which opened for regular business hours during the day, as victims were being interrogated and tortured in the basement.
As my work on these narratives continued, I attended the first national meeting of HIJOS, in a campground near Rio Ceballos in the western province of Cordoba. Present at the large weekend gathering was the Argentine poet, Juan Gelman, who had been living in exile in Europe when his two adult children (and his son’s pregnant wife), were all kidnapped in 1976. Leon Gieco, a popular Argentine folk musician, also came to show his solidarity. It was an emotional weekend for everyone.
I also accompanied the group in a protest against ex-General Massera (one of the three leaders of the military junta) when he appeared on television denying there had ever been any torture centers or disappeared in Argentina. As the group protested outside the TV station, a journalist fired questions at the children—Why can’t you accept the fact that it was a war? The military had to restore peace and order. How do you justify your parents’ actions? Did you know that leftist guerrillas kidnapped and killed innocent people? Do you think your father was a terrorist? Without waiting for a response from HIJOS, the journalist quickly walked away.
As the group gained prominence, the Argentine secret service — whose ranks were still populated by agents who would have participated in repression by the former regime, despite the return of democracy —began making itself visible to members of the group. Agents were spotted following people after HIJOS’ meetings and photographing and filming them at demonstrations. Some members began receiving anonymous, threatening phone calls. Patricia had her apartment, a common gathering place for HIJOS, broken into.
Around this time, I began to make a documentary about the group and brought a camera crew to film an escrache—a form of protest that consists of publicly confronting, exposing and condemning a past perpetrator of human rights violations who has gone unpunished. After the escrache concluded, my producer and I noticed a dark green Ford Falcon, the ubiquitous cars of the 1970s death squads, slowly driving beside us as we walked down my block. When I stopped outside my apartment building, the car pulled over across the street. I stared at the man behind the wheel daring him to look back at me. He kept his gaze straight ahead.
Some hijos asked me if I was planning to leave Buenos Aires when the project was complete. An underlying fear of abandonment seemed to exist within each of them, even in the most self-assured and outspoken ones. I hadn’t planned on leaving my beloved childhood city ever again, but life intervened. I met my future husband, and we left Argentina in 2000, on the eve of one of the country’s recurring economic crises, to move to New York. My documentary remained unfinished, but the stories I had captured and the experiences I had shared with HIJOS stayed with me. They will never leave me.
One morning, I woke up to the remnants of a dream about a young woman, the daughter of Argentines, who grows up in New York. When the family travels to Buenos Aires, the woman slowly uncovers her family’s secret history. That dream would eventually grow into my debut novel On a Night of a Thousand Stars. Through this work of fiction, I hope that I have in some way honored the stories of the sons and daughters I met all those years ago in a windowless basement in Buenos Aires.
On A Night of A Thousand Stars by Andrea Yaryura Clark is available via Grand Central Publishing.