Argentines unite to gain information about 'disappeared' relatives

"You wake up every morning. How are they? What happened to them? Are they ok? Are they cold? Are they hungry? Will I ever see them again?" Hebe de Bonafini, from La Plata, Argentina, sat in Houston and talked about her sons. They were political dissidents. Now they are political prisoners. She has not seen them for four years.

She recalls the dates and the events vividly. On Feb. 8, 1977, at 1 p.m., five cars with heavily armed men whisked Jorge, 30, away from his home in La Plata. Only a few months later on Dec. 6, 1977, his brother, Raul, 27, was pirated away in the same manner.

Mrs. de Bonafini, warm and motherly, inquired about her sons at the police headquarters. There were no answers. She inquired at the Ministry of the Interior. There were no answers. It was a farce. It was as if they were making fun of it all," she recalls.

But Mrs. de Bonafini, wife of a trucking mechanic for the national oil company of Argentina and herself owner of a small dress shop, realized after a few months that there were other mothers of sons and daughters who had disappeared. These women were also asking questions and getting no answers.

One day she and eight mothers met at the Ministry of Interior and talked about their plight. "We decided to unite in a group as a whole and demand information," said Mrs. de Bonafini.

And that is how Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo was born. The group developed as a spontaneous response to the inhuman situation of the "disappeared" persons in Argentina. The group -- mothers, wives, and sisters -- of family members who had been kidnapped by unidentified security personnel banded together in a unified voice pressing for information about their relatives.

Every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 the women go to Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires and in silence march in front of the presidential place. They are a symbol. They want information about their relatives. The 200 to 500 women who march each week also hope they can prevent such actions from occurring in other countries. They have marched for four years. They will continue to march.

The women were recognized in a most unusual ceremony at the Rothko Chapel in houston on June 20. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the chapel -- a nondenominational, ecumenical center known for its religious, intercultural, and human rights activities -- some 12 persons or groups from all over the world received awards in recognition of their commitment to truth and freedom.

It was Dominique de Menil, French-born art collector who makes her home in Houston, who created the idea of the Rothko Chapel. It was Mrs. de Menil who asked artist Mark Rothko to create paintings for such a chapel. And it was Mrs. de Menil who spent most of this year traveling around the world finding "the heroic people of this world, most of them anonymous, who refuse to bow down in front of hypocrisy, pseudo-truths, inflated authority. . . ."

This is how Mrs. de Bonafini found herself in Houston to receive $10,000 for Las Madres at the First Rothko Chapel Awards.

Says Mrs. de Menil, "The two mothers who join us in Houston symbolize a demand for the most simple and basic human right. They do not demand the release of their children, but only to be told if they are alive, where they are kept, and that they be kept in humane conditions. They simply seek the truth."

Hebe de Bonafini, who gave up her dress shop so she can make the trip into Buenos Aires three times a week to join the march or to meet with other mothers, is now president of Las Madres de la Plaza.

"We didn't struggle just for the lives of our children but for all of our children," she says. "If we save a life of one young child or another child, it's the same. It's as if that person was my son. Besides, our struggle is so that this will not be repeated -- so this won't happen to any more people.We aspire so that in our country there will be peace, justice, and freedom for all people."

Do the women fear for their own lives? This seems to be insignificant to them. Says white-haired Maria Adela de Antokoletz, Buenos Aires, mother of Daniel, a prominent Argentine lawyer who disappeared on Nov. 10, 1976, "When someone takes away a son or daughter you don't measure what could happen to you. You go head first and do whatever you can."

Others who received the first Rothko Chapel Awards in recognition of commitment to truth and freedom:

Amadou Hampate Ba, Islamic spiritual leader from Mali, who has worked to open channels of understanding between Islamic, Jewish, Christian, and tribal traditions; Balys Gajauskas, historian of the Lithuanian resistance movement, Perm Labor Camp No. 36, USSR; who is serving time for collecting and preserving documents in his attempt to compile a historical archive of Lithuanian Catholic resistance to Soviet rule; Douglas and Joan Grant, behavorial psychologists, Berkeley, Calif., who implemented a successful project in rehabilitation within the prison system in California; Ned O'Gorman, founder and director of The Children's Storefront, Harlem, who has spent 15 years trying to free Harlem's youth from the oppression of hunger, filth, and chaos; Warren Robbins, founder and director of the Museum of African Art, Washington; who restored an old home to house a museum of African art to benefit Washington's black community; and Giuseppe Alberigo, director of the Insttitute for Religious Sciences, Bologna, Italy, who has worked for greater participation of lay people in the intellectual life of the Roman Catholic Church.

Also, Sakokwenonkwas (Chief Tom Porter), spiritual leader, the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne, Racquette Point, N.Y., who has been at the forefront of the ecological and antinuclear movement in New York State; Zwelakhe Sislulu, journalist and national president o the Media Workers' Association of South Africa; who has fought for a free and committed press; Socorro Juridico, the Legal Aid Department of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, which provides legal assistance to peasants and workers in El Salvador whose basic human rights were being violated; Tatiana Velikanova, human rights advocate, Mordovian Labor Camp No. 3 for women political prisoners, USSR, who has communicated the truth about hundreds of victims of injustice in the Soviet Union; and Jose Zalaquett, chairman of the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International, Washington, who has fought for human rights in Chile and on an international level.

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