A decade of protest and struggle to find Argentina's missing children

THE Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, two separate organizations, began their weekly protest vigils nearly a decade ago. Their action followed the seizure of power, in 1976, by a military junta that ousted the government of President Mar'ia Estela Mart'inez de Per'on.

Almost immediately, the military rulers had set out to smash the militant leftists who had launched a campaign of assassination in the early '70s, killing some 1,400 soldiers and policemen.

The junta's counteroffensive, later dubbed the ``dirty war,'' lowered an indiscriminate dragnet into Argentine society. Thousands of opposition members were rounded up; some militant, some not. More than a few ``mistakes'' were made, in which people uninvolved in politics were abducted. Unmarked cars whisked people away from their places of work; nighttime raids on homes took others. These individuals, often students and other young men and women, ultimately numbered from 15,000 to 30,000, by various estimates.

They became the ``desaparecidos,'' the disappeared ones, whose memories the grandmothers were, and are, determined to keep alive. The women marched in the plaza, which commemorates Argentine independence. The mothers wore white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their missing children. During the years of military rule, theirs was one of the few open protests. Frequently their rallies were broken up and participants were taken away for questioning.

Following a humiliating defeat in the Falklands War in 1982, Argentina's military government fell. The civilian government elected in '83, headed by President Ra'ul Alfons'in, pledged to right the wrongs of the immediate past. Alfons'in ordered the court-martial of 11 top military leaders for human rights offenses and formed a commission to investigate the thousands of disappearances.

While the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo took some initial hope in the return to civilian government, they eventually became sharp critics of Alfons'in's approach. Many protesters, for instance, viewed the commission's work as a substitute for legal action against the perpetrators of the military's reign of terror. The commission's 1984 report accused past leaders of initiating state terror. It said the fate of 8,960 persons remained unknown, though they were supposed to have passed through the 340 secret detention centers set up by the military.

In 1985, a group of former military leaders was brought to trial. The proceedings took eight months, during which some 1,000 witnesses detailed kidnapping, torture, and murder at the hands of military authorities. Two former junta members were given life sentences, three others received long terms, and four were cleared. This outcome didn't please the grandmothers and mothers whose long protest had brought the abuses to the world's attention. The founder of the Mothers, Hebe de Bonafini, was quoted as declaring that the court has ``absolved criminals.''

The danger now, according to recent commentators, is that the persistent protests of the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo may turn public opinion against them. Many Argentines, in this view, have tired of the protest and disagree with the sharp criticism of the new civilian regime.

International human rights groups, meanwhile, report that the problem decried by the Argentine grandmothers and mothers is a hemispheric one. According to one estimate, up to 90,000 Latin Americans in various countries have been ferreted away by policemen and soldiers in the past decade, never to be heard from again.

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