Argentina — the Madres are still walking round the Plaza
With “These Trees are Made of Blood” – a new play set during Argentina’s military dictatorship that tells the story of one woman’s search for her missing daughter – opening at Southwark Playhouse in London on 18 March, LAB brings you an exclusive interview with Evel de Petrini, secretary of the famous Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. In late 2014, LAB correspondent Nick MacWilliam visited the Mothers at their offices in Buenos Aires to discuss the organisation’s past, present and future, the ongoing human rights situation in Argentina, and the North American investors – the Vultures – seeking to profit from the country’s economic troubles.
They came for him at night. “Like all the Mothers, I have a disappeared child,” the elderly woman tells me. “They took him from my home, from in front of me. His name is Sergio Vicente Petrini.” Thirty-eight years have passed since her son was abducted, but time has not dulled the pain. Her eyes glisten as she speaks.
It was the last time Evel de Petrini ever saw Sergio, who was 21, an engineering student at the University of Buenos Aires and a political activist. Since then Evel has been a prominent figure in the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, the famous human rights organisation which was formed during Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983 and which continues to campaign for information regarding the victims.
There is little doubt they were killed a long time ago. Yet the Mothers use the present tense to refer to their loved ones. It is part of the process of preserving memory. “Our children are alive inside of us,” says Evel. “We feel their love every day. Our children were revolutionaries and revolutionary ideals cannot die.”
It is a cold, clear afternoon when my Chilean photographer colleague and I arrive at the Madres de Plaza de Mayo headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires. The organisation occupies a large building on the southern edge of the imposing Plaza Congreso, where it’s been since 2000. The first thing I see upon entering is a large painting of President Cristina Fernández and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. It’s a weekday afternoon and the interior cafe is a hum of workers, students and activists. Folk music plays over the stereo. The walls are adorned with photographs of icons of the Latin American and international left: Fidel, Che, Mercedes Sosa, José Carlos Mariátegui, Salvador Allende, Rosa Luxemburg, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and many others. Prominent among them are the closest thing Argentina has to royalty – ex-president Juan Peron and his adored wife Eva.
Evel de Petrini is waiting for us in the organisation’s private offices, which contain many of the awards and recognitions bestowed upon the Mothers. As secretary of the organisation, she plays a key role alongside its president, Hebe de Bonafini.
“We represent maternity,” says Evel. “There are 30,000 disappeared but there were never 30,000 active mothers. We represent maternity because we think it’s unfair for us to look only for the children of mothers who fight. Everyone has the same rights. All the children deserve to be remembered and to have their names spoken.”
On 24 March 1976, the armed forces staged a coup against the government of Isabel Perón, as Argentina followed its neighbours Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia in establishing military rule. As in those countries, the authorities launched a campaign of extermination – the ‘Dirty War’ – against perceived opponents. Most of those targeted were young: students, trade unionists or left-wing militants. Abducted from their homes, universities or off the streets, thousands were tortured in clandestine detention centres and subsequently murdered. In most cases the families are still looking for information and answers.
In April 1977 a group of 14 women whose children had been taken went to the Plaza de Mayo, the location of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, to demand news of their children. Led by Azucena Villaflor, whose son Néstor was missing along with his wife Raquel, they returned each week, wearing the white headscarves that would become synonymous with their struggle and recognised the world over.
As the group grew in stature and resolve, the authorities began to view it as a threat. On 10 December 1977, International Human Rights Day, the Mothers took out a newspaper advert with the names of their missing children. That same night Azucena Villaflor was taken from her home. Like her beloved Néstor and Raquel, she became one of the disappeared. Two other Mothers, Esther Careaga and María Eugenia Bianco, suffered the same fate.
“Those three had the strongest political will,” recalls Evel of her fallen comrades. “The authorities thought that their murders would break the organisation. But even though we were frightened, it had the opposite effect.” The military had expected to subdue the Mothers by chopping off the head. But the disappearances galvanised the survivors. As the number of victims increased, so the call for justice grew louder. With young militants being eliminated or going into hiding or exile, these middle-aged and largely apolitical women picked up the baton of resistance.
A plunging economy, the human rights issue and la Guerra de las Malvinas (the Falklands War) left the junta struggling to control the fragmented country, leading to the return of democracy in December 1983. With an end to the disappearances, focus now shifted to establishing the truth of what had happened to the victims and bringing the guilty to account. But the mothers sound found out that it was one thing to demand justice; convincing a traumatised society to confront the architects of its suffering was something else entirely. Much depended on the willingness of the fledgling government of Raúl Alfonsín to pursue the perpetrators.
“People were euphoric when Alfonsín was elected in ’83,” says Evel. “Nobody had ever had as much support as he did at that moment. We were going to have democracy and justice. Then the government began negotiating with the military and they established the ley de Punto Final.”
The so-called Full Stop Law ended trials over abuses under the dictatorship. Created in 1986, the law fostered an era of impunity in Argentina, as the governments of Alfonsín and his successor Carlos Meném resisted calls to prosecute military officials. The few already in jail were released.
Many believe that Alfonsín acquiesced to the military’s demands because of fears of another armed coup. Evel disputes the probability of this occurring. “When people protested, we were told this was the only option unless we wanted another dictatorship. I don’t believe that, as the military had been subjugated and the people had risen. Alfonsín should have taken measures to ensure that the military would never again be permitted to do what it had done.”
Although opposed to the Full Stop Law, las Madres could do little to prevent its implementation. “There was never a true democratic negotiation,” says Evel. “The Mothers didn’t accept that. We said nunca vamos a perdonar y nunca vamos a olvidar – We’ll never forgive and we’ll never forget.” It is a derivative of that expression – ni olvido, ni perdón – that has become the rallying cry of the human rights struggle in Argentina. Addressed to the perpetrators as much as to the victims, it maintains that there will be no peace without justice. We are coming for you, it warns.
Yet the fear that the military had the capability to subvert once again democratic governance and to install its own system of totalitarian rule was keenly felt in the fragile landscape of the post-dictatorship. In his book Exorcising Terror, the Chilean author Ariel Dorfman reflects that the failure to bring General Pinochet to account was rooted in uncertainty about how the military in Chile might react in such a situation. According to Dorfman, the spectacle of renewed military rule was enough to smother the cries for justice.
That is no justification, according to Evel. “This depends on the people. You cannot say that you won’t get in a car because you might have an accident. You have to take risks. The Mothers took to the streets at the height of the dictatorship, women on our own, and they hit us, arrested us, dragged us away, and then we took to the streets again. That’s how we got to where we are. If we’d been afraid, we would have been defeated.”
She grows more animated. “We had to confront the situation and let people know about the disappearances and the concentration camps. For us, our children were more important than our own bodies. Those who say they are afraid are more concerned for themselves than for the country!”
Her indignation is also aroused by current circumstances. Since mid-2014 Argentina has been pursued by US courts demanding it repay in full the debt on which it defaulted during the 2001 economic crisis. Following their acquisition of the debt at a vastly reduced price, private investors – the vultures – sued Argentina for the entire amount of US$15billion. As Argentina had earlier negotiated a system of heavily reduced repayments, the Fernández de Kirchner administration’s refusal to recognise the US court ruling was widely supported in Argentina.
“I don’t want a political situation in which I’m humiliated,” says Evel. “Look at what’s happening now with the vulture funds. I’m not going to accept them bringing us to our knees again. I’ll defend this government with my life! This is what it means to be a citizen. This is the respect a citizen owes himself.”
Her words highlight the veneration in which the Mothers hold the current government. Much of this stems from Néstor Kirchner’s presidency (2003-2007), which reversed the Final Point Law and prosecuted those accused of crimes against humanity. “I believe that his government is the best thing to have happened to the Mothers and to the country,” says Evel. “We have ensured real liberty and ended the culture of impunity. One of the first things Néstor did was take down the paintings of the generals in the Casa de Generales, the army headquarters. This gesture said he was one of our children. For us it was a great honour.”
There is a famous photo of Néstor Kirchner supervising the removal of a portrait of the dictator General Rafael Videla. It was a symbol of what was to come. “The first thing Néstor did was stage trials, with convictions. I believe we can today be proud of what has happened. Argentina has set a global example in convicting the killers.”
In 2005, the Argentine Supreme Court overturned the pardons granted to military personnel by President Meném. Having previously been convicted of human rights abuses, Videla was placed under house arrest in 2008 and jailed in 2010. He died behind bars in May 2013. Argentina’s last military ruler, Reynaldo Beynone, was sentenced to 25 years for kidnapping, torture and murder in 2010. He was subsequently given further sentences. The other generals all died before justice could catch up with them.
By way of empathy, Evel looks across to my colleague. “In Chile, which suffered terribly with Pinochet, the murderers are still free and you have the pinochetistas,” she says, referring to the powerful and vocal sector of Chilean society that continues to revere the general, who died a free man in 2006. Compared to its neighbours, Argentina’s truth and reconciliation campaign has made large strides in addressing the trauma of military rule.
That does not mean it’s achieved all its goals, however. The human rights struggle is a challenge that never fades from view. The Mothers remain active today. “It’s important that the state agrees with you because, if not, you have to fight twice as hard,” says Evel. “But the fight is always there. We say the struggle never ends. It’s as if you have a certain goal but you don’t manage to achieve it, you have to continue trying and fighting to reach it. It is endless.”
The organisation continues to promote human rights at home and around the world, and recently expressed solidarity with the 43 students abducted by police in Ayotzinapa in Mexico last September. It also published on its website a statement denouncing the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, but which also criticised the lack of similar worldwide condemnation for other attacks on innocent civilians in Iraq, Palestine and Mexico, to name a few examples.
The perception of a distorted world view promoted by international governments and the media led the Mothers to establish their own university. “All of these things come principally from Hebe, who has a very creative mind,” says Evel. “We began to realise this was an important place, where a lot of people were coming. Young people have to act, to work and to be politically-minded. So we decided to form our own university, where you would have to think for yourself. In my time they lied to us constantly, and we didn’t want young people to experience the same.”
As the Mothers face the reality of their advanced years – “as a team we’re about 2,000 years old!” says Evel, laughing – they hope that the university will help preserve their legacy. But, above all, what is important is the continuation of what she simply refers to as “the struggle.” That, and a philosophy that values collective good over personal gain and action over inaction.
The following day, a Thursday, is the day of the week when the Mothers invariably walk round the Plaza de Mayo, a ritual they have performed since they were led by Azucena Villaflor. They still await news of their children. Evel’s son Sergio, still a youth at the time of his disappearance, would be approaching 60 now.
The Mothers’ presence in the plaza is celebrated in many ways. A crowd of supporters accompanies the women on a slow double-lap of the plaza, across headscarf symbols painted on the ground and to the click of tourists’ cameras. Yet from the moment they disembark from the minivan that has brought them here, I am overcome by a sense of heavy sadness. While their supporters chant ‘Madres de la Plaza, el pueblo las abraza’ (Mothers of the Plaza, the people embrace you), the women are frail and subdued. The reality of their situation occurs to me. At such an advanced age, they are unlikely ever to learn what happened to their children. And I am sure they know it too.
Time has diminished their number, and soon they too will be gone. I cannot help but imagine the last few Mothers – then the last couple, and finally a single, solitary woman – fulfilling the duty to return to the Plaza de Mayo each week until their calls are answered. Did they ever think they would grow so old without finding their loved ones? As the Mothers and their supporters leave the plaza, Buenos Aires seems unusually quiet. But it’s not long before the hubbub has returned, as the capital goes about its regular business. Next week the Mothers will be back, locked in a cycle of mourning they have given their lives to. For all the accolades heaped upon their organisation and for all the worthy acts committed in their name, you suspect they would trade it all for just that one vital piece of news. It’s a thought that stays with me a long while.