CRF Blog

The Living Disappeared

by Bill Hayes

In The Living Disappeared for California Sunday Magazine, Bridget Huber tells the story of one grandmother who searched for her grandchild who had been born to her daughter Stella Montesano in an Argentinian torture center during the country’s dictatorship. Stella’s husband Jorge Ogando had also disappeared.

In the early days of the dictatorship, few understood the scale of what was happening. Even inside the forsaken halls of the Pozo de Banfield, where the desperation was so great that some prisoners begged the guards to kill them, there was a sort of innocence and credulity. Not long before Stella gave birth, another prisoner had a baby. Some of the detainees heard the cries from the floor below and asked the guards what would happen to it. The guards said not to worry. They were bringing the child to live with a family on a farm. “ ‘You can’t imagine how great the farm is! It’s wonderful,’ ” one former prisoner recalled the guards saying. “We made toasts to the new baby,” said the prisoner. “We never heard another thing about him.”

In March 1976, almost seven months before Jorge and Stella were detained, Argentina’s armed forces overthrew the president, Isabel Perón, and launched what they called the National Reorganization Process. The previous years had been chaos. Perón was under the thrall of a shadowy police agent and astrologer known as “the warlock.” Government-backed right-wing paramilitaries murdered hundreds of dissidents. Armed leftist groups set off bombs and kidnapped, and in some cases killed, executives and police. Even many moderates thought the military would restore order and stability. The press was strictly censored, so few realized that the country had been seized by a uniquely ruthless regime that saw itself as waging a third world war in Argentina for the future of “Western and Christian civilization.” The dictatorship sought to impose a new social and economic order. To do so, it branded a huge swath of society as “subversive” and targeted it for annihilation. By the time the dictatorship fell in 1983, as many as 30,000 people had disappeared. Some were armed revolutionaries — though historians now believe this group was neutralized within the first year or so of the dictatorship — while others were students, activists, union members, disability rights advocates, and priests and nuns who followed liberation theology. Countless more were people whose names were simply in the wrong address book.

Some 500 children are thought to have disappeared during the dictatorship. Some were stolen when their parents were abducted, but most were born in Argentina’s torture centers. After women gave birth, they were considered as worthless as any other prisoner. In the Pozo de Banfield, the guards often made new mothers clean the makeshift maternity room right after delivery. Some postpartum women were dropped from planes into the Río de la Plata’s turbid waters; others were executed and dumped into mass graves or burned in the crematoriums that operated day and night. In a final erasure, the dictatorship’s operatives stripped the women’s babies of their identities — many were kept as spoils of war by people close to the regime. Others were abandoned at orphanages or sold on the black market.

Before Jorge and Stella vanished, Jorge’s mother, Delia Giovanola, a well-heeled, fairly apolitical school principal, had started hearing murmurings about young people disappearing — former students, Jorge’s acquaintances. She dismissed these rumblings. There must have been a reason, she thought. She was 50 when the military overthrew the government. It was the fifth coup she’d lived through and she wasn’t particularly concerned. But when Jorge and Stella vanished, she ran first to her friends who were military wives for help. The women were cold. Delia began making desperate peregrinations. She filed writs of habeas corpus, begged for information at police stations and newspaper offices. Wherever she went, she was met with scorn. Relax, bureaucrats told her, the couple had probably run off to vacation in Europe.

Delia brought [Stella and Jorge’s other child] Virginia to live with her and her husband and quit her job to devote herself to searching full-time. Forty-one years later, she still doesn’t know why Jorge and Stella were rounded up. Though they were sympathetic with the left, and Stella, as a lawyer, had some union clients, they weren’t members of any political or revolutionary groups, as far as the family knows. Instead the circumstances that most likely led to their kidnapping seem mundane: Stella and Jorge had an extra bedroom that they rented to a woman they met through Jorge’s cousin. The woman’s husband was a politically active medical student, who was doing his obligatory military service in another city but visited during his breaks. On one visit, he went out on his bike and never came back. Jorge was unsuspecting enough to report his disappearance to authorities. Within two weeks Jorge, Stella, the housemate, and Jorge’s cousin were gone. [more]