BUENOS AIRES – For the first time in more than four decades, the emblematic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo did not attend their Thursday appointment in the iconic site in Buenos Aires.
As most of them are in their 90s, the coronavirus risk has forced them to stay at home, away from the place where since 1977 they have cried in remembrance of their children who disappeared during the last military dictatorship.
Usually, stepping on the square where the Casa Rosada presidential office is located means entering into the country’s recent history: it is where these fighters, with characteristic white scarves on their heads, gather around the Pyramid of May every Thursday afternoon to keep alive the memory of their children, most of them political activists that the de facto regime (1976-1983) disappeared forever.
But that did not happen Thursday.
“Every Thursday, whether it’s cold or rainy, the round has been made, and unfortunately this Thursday it is not going to be done,” said Taty Almeida, one of the members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Founding Line, one of the two factions into which the activists have been divided since 1986.
Hebe de Bonafini, president of the other association, could not help crying when she realized in a video on Facebook recorded in the kitchen of her house, that they have never stopped going to the plaza – until now.
“Forty-three years … it’s like a very big pain, but I want people to understand and know that we don’t do it for us, we do it for you, so that you understand how we have to take care of ourselves,” said Bonafini, who has two children missing.
Every Thursday, the Mothers were accompanied by supporters and members of human rights organizations with the firm conviction that when they are no longer there, someone will continue their trail in the Plaza.
This is why this Thursday, in the middle of the empty square, four people decided to keep the spirit of the old women alive.
“They were advised not to come … they traveled far. Nora (Cortiñas, one of the Mothers of the Founding Line) turns 90 next Sunday,” said Gonzalo Moyano, one of the attendees.
“Thirty-thousand comrades arrested and disappeared present, now and forever!” the small group shouted at the end of the march around the pyramid, in which, as usual, someone yells out the names of some of the victims with a megaphone.
According to humanitarian agencies, some 30,000 political and social activists, students, members of armed or non-revolutionary groups, artists and religious people were arrested, tortured and most of them thrown into the sea alive during the dictatorship.
On April 30, 1977, with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in power, 14 women met for the first time in the Plaza de Mayo to demand to know their whereabouts.
“But we were under siege and no more than three people could be together. So the police began to say ‘walk, move’ and so was the first round,” recalled Almeida, who in just over three months will be 90 years old and whose son Alejandro was kidnapped in June 1975, believed to be by the para-police organization Triple A, which in the years prior to the military coup is estimated to have left some 2,000 missing.
Despite the fact that most of these “crazy” women – as the dictatorship called them – have never found out the whereabouts of their children, they continued to gather every Thursday in memory of their loved ones.
“We did what we should do and what our children inspired us to, because we know who they were and what they were fighting for and we knew that they were right in what they wanted to do. They were looking for equality and the best for everyone,” said Haydee Gastelu, mother of Horacio, kidnapped in 1976, and one of the 14 founders.
At 91, she has spent her life seeking justice, and in 2001 was able to recover her son’s remains thanks to a forensic anthropology team. Despite not being able to go to the plaza Thursday, her hand remained on her heart.
“Everyone at home will remember their loved ones. You have to know how to receive and accept orders from an authority,” she said, referring to the isolation recommendations of President Alberto Fernandez, for whom both associations have great affinity, as well as with vice president and former president Cristina Fernandez.
In December 1977, three of the founders of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – Azucena Villaflor, Esther Ballestrino and Maria Ponce – were murdered in a big blow to their companions, who faced the fear of possible retaliation if they continued their fight.
But they were not intimidated, and although some weeks they chose to meet in churches or places near the plaza to avoid repression, they did not abandon their cause.
“Not even the Thursday after our mothers were kidnapped did we stop going. Surrounded by police, with dogs, with gas … a very small group made it to the march,” recalled Bonafini, also 91 years old.
On Tuesday, during the 44th anniversary of the last coup d’etat, Argentina will commemorate the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice, but this time, and due to the precautions against the coronavirus, the march will be subdued.