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Grandmothers of the `disappeared'. The search goes on for children who vanished during Argentina's military rule

This year's Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film to ``The Official Story,'' an Argentine film, renders homage not only to its director, actors, and producers, but also to an organization called ``The Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.'' For the last nine years, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo have been looking for their ``disappeared'' grandchildren, the sons and daughters of Argentina's ``desaparecidos,'' all of whom were victims of the reign of terror during Argentina's last military regime, from 1976 to 1983.

In most cases the grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo know of the death of their sons and daughters, and have focused their efforts on trying to find their grandchildren.

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(Another group, the ``Mothers of Plaza de Mayo,'' is trying to learn the fate of disappeared sons and daughters but so far has received few answers from the military establishment. They continue to press their case in every public forum.)

Many of the missing grandchildren were born in concentration camps to women who had been pregnant at the time of their abduction by the military. Other children disappeared along with their parents.

The grandmothers' group says that in many cases, the infants born in the camps and the young children who were abducted with their parents were later unlawfully adopted by members of the same repressive forces that abducted and killed their parents.

Since its founding in 1977, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo has found 39 children, out of more than 200 well-documented cases of missing children in Argentina.

Its tactics have been publicly criticized from time to time, although its goals are widely respected.

Maria Isabel de Mariani, president of the group, interviewed in New York and Buenos Aires, gives an illustration of the organization's struggles and triumphs through the tale of how a single child was recovered.

``I am going to tell you how we found a boy nicknamed `Beto,' who had disappeared along with his mother. We did not have much information about this child's disappearance until a man named Juan Carlos Ju'arez came to our headquarters in Buenos Aires, to ask for our help to find his nephew Beto.

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``There is nothing we are not able to try in order to learn something about the children. When we have some clues that a family is suspect of having unlawfully adopted a child, we start following the family very closely. There have been cases in which one of us has offered her service as a home helper in order to get into a house. In another case one of the grandfathers has posed as a plumber looking for a job.

``But the biggest help is from the people. We periodically publish information in the newspapers accompanied by pictures of the missing children, and people come forward with information about them. When we cannot get close to the children, we even use a telephoto lens to follow them from a distance.

``The child's real name is Sebasti'an Ju'arez, and he had `disappeared' in 1977 when he was three years old. Beto had been living with his mother, Lucinda, in Buenos Aires Province, when paramilitary forces abducted her and left Beto in the house of a neighbor, an older man who was very fond of the child. The man kept Beto with him for a few days and then took him to the Juvenile Court judge in the area. The judge gave Beto to a foster family which already had several children of desaparecidos living with them.

``The old neighbor gave us what information he had about the child's whereabouts, and with that we were finally able to find out where Beto, now ten years old, was living. We went there with his uncle, and asked the woman who was keeping the child to let us see and talk to him. She only let us see him through a barred window, but did not allow us to talk to him. We saw a timid child with a sad face, and we had the feeling we were seeing Beto as if through a prison wall.

``Our group of Grandmothers was following these events very closely, providing all the psychological and legal help needed. Eventually, Beto's aunt and uncle collected all the documentation necessary to be granted custody of the child, and after much travail Beto was given back to his real family. He is such a wonderful boy! He has a beautiful smile, two big front teeth, very large, dark eyes with an intelligent look in them.

``On the same day that the judge gave the authorization for Beto to go back to his family, his aunt Chichi brought him to the Grandmother's headquarters in Buenos Aires. It produced a tremendous impression on all of us to see another child that we had helped find and return to his family come to visit us in our offices.

``Beto then went to an office where Nora, the secretary of the group, works. Beto saw her typing on a big electric typewriter, something he had never seen before. Nora is not an abuela [grandmother]; she is the only young person working in the office. When Beto arrived, we gave him our corporate stamps to play with. He was stamping papers with enthusiasm when all of a sudden he saw the picture of a little girl we had been trying to locate. We were doing press releases about her case, which is very important because we found out that she had been adopted by a man who was the head of one of the most infamous death squads operating in Argentina.

I was sitting next to Beto when he asked who this girl was. His aunt, with great sensitivity, told him, `She is a girl who has disappeared, and the Grandmothers are looking for her as they were looking for you.' He said nothing, continued stamping papers and said, `First they get rid of the children, and then they look for them.' ''

``I was totally taken aback by his words. I explained to Beto that this girl had never been abandoned by her family, and that her grandmother had been desperately looking for her. He continued playing silently, occasionally looking at me with those big, wonderful eyes of his. I then took a picture of my granddaughter out of my wallet and told him, `See? I am also looking for my granddaughter; her name is Clara Anah'i. I love her dearly, but I cannot find her and bring her back to me.' I said to him that many nights I cry out of frustration, and then I explained to him as clearly as possible the process by which children were made to disappear. He listened to me attentively, but still did not say anything.

``When Nora saw Beto, she asked him if he would like her to type his name. He said yes, and for the first time in his life Beto saw written his full family name. He looked at it with curiosity, and asked Nora if she would mind adding something else to his name.

``She said that she would not, and Beto asked her, `Please write hacia (towards).' Because in Argentine Spanish hacia sounds either like hacia (towards) or Asia (as the continent), Nora proceeded to ask him `Which one?' Beto paused for a few seconds and then, very seriously, he told her, hacia su libertad (toward his freedom).''


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