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The Mothers of Plaza De Mayo's Resilient Spirit for Truth and Justice in Argentina

Written by Wilson Ugangu
The plaza De Mayo or the May square in central Buenos Aires is no ordinary public park. Over the last thirty years it has acquired a symbolic significance of struggle for truth and justice against past atrocities. It is here that a group of elderly women now commonly known as the Mothers of Plaza De Mayo have been gathering every Thursday evening for the last thirty years to solemnly march round the Park’s central stature.
They have repeated this simple ritual every single Thursday in memory of those they lost during the murderous military rule in the late seventies to the early eighties. For ordinary Argentineans, the mothers of Plaza De Mayo embody the face of defiance and a nation’s search for truth and the struggle for justice for the systematic torture, disappearances and the murder of innocent citizens during the dictatorship.

They have come to represent a historical moment in their country’s life, a constant reminder to a shameful sad past in which approximately thirty thousand Argentines were tortured and murdered during the military dictatorship which took power on 24/3/1976 after overthrowing the government of Isabel Peron.

The military take-over was soon followed by a nationwide crackdown on critics of the regime. All forms of public expression particularly those critical of the regime were met by brutal force. As a result, thousands of people were tortured and subsequently murdered by the military.

The military top cadre also embraced corruption and created a privileged minority class which thrived on stolen state resources. Martin Becerra a sociology lecturer at the University of Quilmes says that Argentina before the military revolution of 1976 was perhaps the most equal country in Latin America.

Each of the mothers of Plaza De Mayo, mostly now in their seventies carries a heart rending story of a husband, a son or daughter tortured, murdered or made to disappear in one way or the other during the seven year military rule between 1976 and 1983.

In the wee hours of the morning of May 14, 1976, a group of men in a military truck abducted 23 year old Maria Marta Vasquez from her Buenos Aires apartment, narrates Marta Ocampo De Vasquez. “Thirty years later, I have no idea what happened to my daughter.”

In search of solace, and in a show of solidarity with the other women who lost loved ones during this dark period in her country’s history, Marta Ocampo De Vasquez joined the marchers thirty years ago at the Plaza De Mayo- the May Square. She has since repeated this ceremony every Thursday each week without failing. Like the other marchers, she says, the bitterness she felt when her daughter disappeared may have dissipated with the years, but not the desire to know the truth.

“I have heard stories that she was loaded into a plane and together with others thrown alive from the skies into the Atlantic Ocean. I found out these things many years later.” she adds.

All that remains of our loved ones are the memories that we carry in our hearts, says 75 year old Adelina Lara Molina whose brother Carlos Alberto disappeared on 13/12/1977. She remembers he was then fifty nine years old.

Delia Morel has vivid memories of the day in 1976 when her sister and her brother in law failed to return home. They were never seen nor heard from again. It is said they were abducted from work and taken to a military camp. That is all she knows. Armed with her brother’s picture, she can only cling to the memory, and shadow of a man she adored in her youthful years. Now 78 years old, Morel says she started marching at the Plaza De Mayo in 1977, and she has kept the ritual to date.

The spirit of resilience and hope that the Mothers of Plaza De Mayo carry with them is amazing. “In doing this we wish to preserve not only a history but also a lesson for our country, particularly for the leadership and the younger generation. We wish to say to them that we cannot afford to take peace for granted. That our politics should be for the good of society and not for destruction” says Beatriz lewin now 76 years old.

Martin Beccerra gives credit to the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo as the pioneer voice of courage that stood up against the excesses of the military dictatorship. “This is why they are hailed and respected by the people,” he adds.

“They remind us of what happened, the shameful past that is part of our country’s history, but the narrative goes beyond the event, it is also about human rights and social justice.” Says Baccerra.

The Thursday afternoon march has also become a symbol of protest, for it embodies the women’s and the nation’s desire for justice. In 1995, writes Martha Farmelo, a retired navy officer Adolfo Francisco Scillingo broke the military’s pact of silence when he confessed about his participation in pushing live dissidents out of airplanes into the Atlantic during the dictatorship. This confirmed what had been rumoured for years, she adds.

Adolfo Francisco’s 1995 declarations reopened the debate in Argentina about how to bring justice to those who perpetrated atrocities during the dictatorship. The mothers of those who disappeared have continued to urge the state to investigate disappearances and murders during the dictatorship and to provide affected families with the truth about loved ones even when prosecutions have been proscribed by amnesties or other impunity laws.
It is as a result of this pressure that the government of Argentina in 1999 signed an agreement establishing the legal “right to the truth” This meant that a deliberate measure was legally instituted to allow federal courts to compel past military officials and others involved in the atrocities to tell the courts what they knew of the repressive years.

As a result, truth trials have been held in nearly all of Argentina’s 23 provinces. However, unlike the truth commissions established in countries such as El Salvador and South Africa, the Argentine truth trials have, at times led to prosecutions. Severally a judge’s call for an arrest has transformed the truth trial into a criminal proceeding, despite the impunity and amnesty laws, in cases where a witness was implicated in a human rights violation, committed perjury during the trial or simply refused to testify at all.

Additionally, cases have been brought before courts questioning the constitutionality of former president Carlos Menem’s presidential pardons. Although two such cases have stalled for years, but they have generated critical debate around such moves by a sitting president hence ensuring that incumbents are discouraged from repeating similar mistakes.

If there are any lessons to be learnt from the thirty year old protest by the mothers of Plaza De Mayo in Argentina it is the desire for justice and truth. In recent times, we have witnessed moves towards the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission in Kenya. Such a commission was primarily meant to address the iniquities of past regimes in Kenya since independence.

Although a proposal for such a commission was made in the first two years of President Kibaki’s government, there has not been enough pressure to ensure that it comes to pass. Yet there is a basic lesson to embrace from the Argentine example. If a society is not capable of punishing the most grave crimes, there certainly should be doubts about the extend to which it can uphold the rule of law, or give the law the moral force that generates compliance.

In recent years, the Argentine government has been bold to confront the nation’s ugly past by instituting legal proceedings against alleged perpetrators. The truth trials have resonated well with the people. As Betriz Lewin points out, it’s important to know the truth about what happened.

Note: The Writer is a journalist and communication specialist. He recently visited Argentina where he met and interviewed the mothers of Plaza De Mayo in Central Buenos Aires.

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