It's the kind of photo prominently displayed in any grandmother's home: a proud matriarch surrounded by 12 beaming grandchildren. But for Marta Ocampo de Vasquez, this portrait is a source of both great joy and constant sorrow.
A grandson that Mrs. Vasquez has never seen is missing from the photo. She knows he is alive, and she knows he should be there amid the youthful exuberance orbiting grandma in her sensible black shoes.
Vasquez is one of dozens of Argentine grandmothers searching for what are referred to here simply as "the stolen children." An estimated 400 to 500 children were taken from young parents who were kidnapped and "disappeared" by authorities during Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship. They were adopted by politically acceptable parents - military, police, or other families connected to the regime.
These children, now young adults, are at the center of Argentina's struggle to come to terms with its past. It's an effort suffused with strong, conflicting emotions and legal claims - the search for the stolen children's identity, their right to know the truth of their origin, and a biological family's desire to establish kinship versus a child's preference to leave the past unprobed.
Identifying the grandchildren
As wrenching as the case of the stolen children is, recent events are giving grandmothers like Vasquez new hope. First, grandchildren continue to be identified: To date, 64 cases have been resolved, with more than 200 cases under active investigation. Human rights groups estimate that perhaps 200 more cases could be opened.
In addition, a Buenos Aires judge is investigating what he asserts was the dictatorship's systematic plan for taking the children and changing their identity. Earlier this year the case resulted in the arrest of a number of key former military leaders.
Internationally, investigations mirroring the Spanish case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet offer the grandmothers a certain promise. In Spain, the same judge developing the Pinochet case, Baltasar Garzn, is expected to file as early as this week formal charges of terrorism and genocide against some 100 former Argentine military officials. The controversial Spanish judge is investigating 179 Argentines for "crimes against humanity" during the military dictatorship.
In Italy, a court soon will try former Argentine military leaders in absentia for the torture and death of eight Argentines of Italian descent, one of whom was the mother of a missing child. And the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo organization is working with State Department officials and American rights groups to get information that could help clear up more identities.
Although some Argentines consider such international cases "interference" in their internal affairs, the grandmothers welcome the help because a number of the child cases involve foreign citizens or flight to other countries.
The grandmothers say they will not rest until as much of the truth as possible is known. "We owe that to our children, to find their children and tell them who their parents were," says Vasquez, "that they were good, life-loving young people like them who died for a principle."
The story of how Vasquez came to be one of Argentina's Plaza de Mayo grandmothers is emblematic of the dictatorship's particular brand of state terrorism. Vasquez's daughter, Mara Marta, was a social worker with her husband in one of Buenos Aires's slums when the two were detained by police in May 1976.
The two young people were never seen again by their families, but Vasquez received information that her daughter was held until she gave birth to a boy in January 1977.
"I was told that right after she gave birth she had her flight," says Vasquez, referring to the military's documented practice of drugging prisoners and loading them into cargo planes to be dumped alive into the sea.
Eleven years later, the grandmothers group informed Vasquez they had found a boy who by his birth date and the details of his adoption could be her grandson. But the boy's family rebuffed judicial orders for blood tests.
Last year Vasquez presented herself to the young man, now 22, in Buenos Aires and pleaded with him to submit to DNA tests. "He said he'd think about it," she adds, "but I haven't heard from him since."
Vasquez says she does not want to "trouble the boy's life," or if he turned out to be her grandson to press him to join her family. "I just want to know the truth."
Establishing the truth, to make "sure this can never happen again" is also what motivates Adolfo Bagnasco, the Buenos Aires federal judge investigating what he says was a well-organized plan for taking children from their "subversive" parents and placing them in "loyal" families.
Mr. Bagnasco, who in January found eight former military leaders responsible for the child thefts and placed them under house arrest, says his probe has revealed two stages in the plan. The first covered the first three years of the dictatorship, he says, when its leaders were often inside the detention centers "and would have at least seen what was happening." The second, after the Falklands war against Britain, involved new military leaders who organized a "cover-up" of the stolen-children organization.
'Killing' a child's identity
Perhaps the worst of the regime's many crimes was "this attempt to kill a child's identity, to force the formation of a new identity in [the regime's] image," says Roberto Jos Marquevitch, another federal judge who in 1998 placed former military junta leader Jorge Videla under house arrest. Many of Argentina's military dictators had already been imprisoned and then were pardoned by President Menem.
"How could I not investigate [this case]?" says Judge Marquevitch. "These were crimes against nature that transcended any pardon."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society