These Women Lived To Tell The Tale Of Argentina’s Dirty War

Miriam Lewin, 58, was supposed to die. The first time, she was just 17, taken by an Argentinian junta death squad off the street in broad daylight. She tried to swallow a cyanide pill that she always carried in her pocket — so that she couldn't give up her colleagues if she was tortured. Members of the underground leftist movement she was a member of weren’t sure of what happened when the military took someone away; they just knew they never saw their comrades again. Her kidnappers made her spit out the homemade capsule. Then there were the countless times during her years of imprisonment that her captors beat her unconscious or tortured her with an electrified cattle prod. "We quickly learned what we had to do to survive. And that was to be womanly, appealing," Lewin said. "Dressing nice, putting on whatever makeup we could find, wearing earrings; as women, we soon realized that these things exempted us from being tortured." Lewin survived against the odds. Now, an award-winning journalist, she tells the stories of others who suffered like her, and believed they had no voice. She has unveiled cases of human trafficking, corruption, and sexual abuse.
The upcoming release of U.S. documents related to the oppressive military regime of 1976 to 1983 will finally put to bed lingering questions about how much Washington knew of the human rights abuses. To this day, many Argentinians firmly believe the U.S. government supported the junta. And the few documents that have emerged over the decades hint that there may be some merit to their allegations. In just seven years, the dictatorship killed an estimated 22,000 people; some activists say as many as 30,000 were murdered. They were civilians more often than not; only a small percentage of those detained were actually active members of Marxist revolutionary cells known as the Montoneros — the dictatorship’s purported main targets. “For a while,” Lewin said, “I used to sit in public transportation and look at people straight in the eye, thinking, You, or perhaps you, maybe you — would be capable of committing such atrocities to another human being.

What is remarkable is that the shared pain of having your children go missing united us, women of all walks of life, social backgrounds. Women who wouldn’t normally band together otherwise.

Elsa Pavon
Most of the torture she experienced was psychological, she said. "They shamed you, used your weaknesses against you. As a young woman, already being tied naked to a metal bed was shameful enough. During one of the initial torture sessions, I remember they inquired about my sex life. They wanted to know how often I had sexual intercourse with my then-boyfriend. I froze — I didn’t know what to answer. I wanted to give a normal answer, one that would stop be from being shamed, or worse, tortured for it. But I had little sexual experience, so I had no conception of what was normal." That was only the tip of the iceberg. The full extent of the sexual abuse in illegal detention centers during the Argentine dictatorship is detailed in her book, Putas y Guerrilleras (in English, Whores and Guerrilla Members). The former Marxist militant appealed for political refuge in the U.S. Once it was granted, she settled in New York with her husband, who is also a former detainee. She was only 25 years old. Three years later, in 1985, she was back in Argentina. Democracy had been firmly reinstated, and the trial against the military juntas had begun. She was one of the first victims to make a public declaration against her torturers. Rape and sexual abuse allegations were not heard nor prosecuted until the second wave of trials beginning in 2006, which are still ongoing. Sexual crimes have only been prosecuted since the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia set the precedent that rape constitutes a crime against humanity in 1998.
Congresswoman Victoria Donda, 38, was born in a clandestine maternity ward in the ESMA, a former illegal detention center in Buenos Aires. Soon after giving birth, Victoria’s mother Maria Hilda de Donda was “transferred”— code word for drugged and thrown out of a plane into the River Plate during a “death flight” — the military’s preferred way of disappearing people. Her father, Jose Maria Donda, suffered the same fate. Meanwhile, the orphaned Victoria was handed over to a military family to be raised as their own. An estimated 500 children suffered the same fate, and only about half of them have recovered their identities, like Victoria. “I’m a survivor; I’m proud of being one,” Donda said, beaming. "I want everybody to know that. I don’t want to portray the sad, serious face of somebody who’s suffered. I want to celebrate life.” Her celebration of life, since realizing her true identity a decade ago through a DNA test, has steered her career. Today, she is a thrice-elected congresswoman pushing for socially minded change in Argentine politics. And she doesn’t shy away from the tough causes; she is one of the few outspoken politicians supporting pro-choice reproductive rights legislation. Donda said that during a recent visit by President Obama, she was invited, alongside other members of Congress, to a dinner hosted by Argentine President Mauricio Macri in his honor. She politely refused.

I used to sit in public transportation and look at people straight in the eye, thinking, You, or perhaps you, maybe you — would be capable of committing such atrocities to another human being.

Miriam Lewin
“It would be nice of him [Obama] to apologize on behalf of the U.S. for the way the country acted during the Argentine dictatorship,” she said. The few documents that have emerged through the National Security Archive’s efforts demonstrate that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford were aware of the bloodshed and disappearances. In one instance, records from a staff meeting between Kissinger and the Assistant Secretary for Latin America William Rogers show the secretary of state replying to a briefing about the repression and violence in Argentina: “I don't want to give the sense that they're harassed by the United States.” On March 24, the 40th anniversary of the coup that brought Jorge Rafael Videla to power, Obama pledged to declassify U.S. documents related to the regime. He spoke alongside Argentine President Mauricio Macri at the Parque de la Memoria, which is next to the river where planes dumped the bodies of Argentina’s disappeared. Obama acknowledged that the U.S. had been too slow to condemn the atrocities being committed, but stopped short of apologizing.
“There has been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days,” Obama said. “Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don't live up to the ideals that we stand for. And we've been slow to speak out for human rights, and that was the case here,” he said. Victoria will soon have to explain her past to her daughter Trilce, who is in kindergarten. They will watch Tangled together. “It’s the story of [a] girl being raised by an evil witch,” she recounts. “One day, she is made aware of her true identity, and her life journey begins. Still, the character jumps between despair and excitement, guilt and delight. Much like I felt when I found myself, in real life.” Elsa Pavon, 79, always knew that her daughter had been involved in left-wing politics. “I saw the shift, something change, after she came back from a trip to the North right out of high school. They had gone to some of the poorest areas to build houses for the needy.” Monica, her daughter, joined the Montoneros once she was at university, a left-wing underground guerilla group who sought to overthrow the dictatorship and restore democracy.

They can try the criminals all they want, but justice, for me, will never be served.

Elsa Pavon
Her evenings were packed with secret meetings and political rallies. During the day, she kept an office job where she met her husband Claudio, who was also a sympathizer. Soon after they married, they had a daughter, Paula. In 1977, Monica and Claudio were tipped off that the death squads were looking for them. They packed a few belongings and fled to neighboring Uruguay, oblivious to the international reach of Operation Condor. On May 18, 1978, squad cars surrounded the family of three as they crossed a street in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. Men beat Monica and Claudio and covered their heads with hoods, stuffing them in cars. “Somebody who witnessed the event later on told me that what they found the most striking was that the kidnappers also put a hood over 2-year-old Paula’s head. Just barely more than a baby,” Pavon said. Monica and Claudio were never heard from again. Elsa was terrified upon receiving news of her daughter and granddaughter’s disappearance. Many mothers like her were lining up, habeas corpus (a writ ordering a person in custody to be brought before a court) papers in hand, attempting to find out what happened to their children. Growing frustrated from the lack of answers, they organized, and became known as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.

I don’t want to portray the sad, serious face of somebody who’s suffered. I want to celebrate life.

Victoria Donda
“What is remarkable is that the shared pain of having your children go missing united us, women of all walks of life, social backgrounds. Women who wouldn’t normally band together otherwise.” The support from her new sisters-in-arms gave her the strength to carry on searching for her daughter and granddaughter. But back at home, her family life was irreparably affected by Claudia and Paula’s disappearance. "There is so much more there that people don’t really think about. There’s incidents all the time, ripples. For example, once, one of my grandchildren came crying, desperately, into my arms. I asked him what was wrong. He said, ‘I don’t want for the police to take my mommy and daddy like they took Paula's.' What do you say to a child? How do you explain that there’s a democracy now and that won’t happen to them? Our family will carry that mark forever." But her hard work paid off. In 1980, Elsa traced Paula to an Argentine family living in Uruguay. Paula’s kidnappers had falsified documents, denied her claims, and told the then-8 year-old girl her grandmother was a lying "crazy woman." She took the case before a judge, but she had to wait until 1984 to recover her kidnapped granddaughter — the year in which DNA testing technology was introduced to Argentina. Once their relationship was proven beyond a doubt, Paula was legally returned into Elsa’s care. Elsa was the first Mother of Plaza de Mayo to recover a relative using this method. As for her daughter: "I’ve just realized that she is never coming back some six years ago,” she said, sighing. "They can try the criminals all they want, but justice, for me, will never be served."

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