Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo

The Nobel Committee Flunked Again

"The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011 is to be divided in three equal parts between Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work. We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society"

As always in the sorry history of the awards, the story is not who won, but, who didn't. Please understand that my comments are not directed at these women laureates who have done wonderful work in their respective spheres of Liberia and Yemen. They are being honored as symbols of a larger group of women who gather around the world to ask for peace. But at the same time, it is those who were ignored, and why, that is the real story.

One could also say the award has been politicised, with President Obama's undeserved win in 2009, Israeli nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu being nominated 21 times, and each time, shamefully passed over, and many other deserving groups ignored for inexplicable reasons.

For the last two years, the Argentinian Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo have been nominated for their work, and each time, passed over.

"The Argentine human rights group the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The group started in 1977 when mothers who lost children under Argentina’s military dictatorship gathered to trade stories and provide support. That meeting later spawned the first of scores of demonstrations and actions against Argentina’s military leaders.

The Grandmothers’ president, Estela Carlotto, was joined at a news conference Wednesday by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garz√≥n and Chilean senator Isabel Allende.

Estela Carlotto: "What we have done we did over time with perseverance, creativity, persistence, stubbornness, and the great love that we have for the two generations that we are looking for. And we didn’t realize that this could grow in such a way."

They did, indeed grow in such a way, and it is important to honor and tell their story, and all other women around the world who have done such work for peace. That some are ignored because they do not fit a safe mold, or they shame us for our complicity in crimes done against humanity, only requires that we tell their stories again and again, till people listen.

And, speaking of why I titled this post "The Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo" instead of Grandmothers, it is because they were the original group. In the 70's the Argentinian military dictatorship killed tens of thousands of activists and stole their children to be raised by rich Argentinians. Then it was their mothers, the grandmothers, who gathered every week to demand the return of their grandchildren. This is the story of all the mothers of Argentina that aroused the conscience of their countrymen and eventual defeat of the military government.


"First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then…their sympathizers. Then…those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid. General Iberico Saint-Jean, governor of Buenos Aires (1977)

Here I can do with you whatever I want because I am the lord of life and death. Colonel Roberto Roualdes, First Command, Army Corps

On October 23, 1975, at the Eleventh Conference of Latin American Armies in Montevideo, Uruguay, journalists asked Lieutenant General, Jorge Rafael Videla, commander in chief of the Argentine military forces, about the fight against subversion. "In order to guarantee the security of the state," General Videla replied, "all the necessary people will die." And when asked to define a subversive, he answered, "Anyone who opposes the Argentine way of life."

Among the relatives of the disappeared a group of mothers emerged, galvanized by a woman in her fifties, Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti, whose son and daughter-in-law had been abducted. Azucena had worked in a factory as a young woman, but after her marriage she devoted herself completely to her family. Her energy and charisma became sources of inspiration for the other mothers. They started meeting in her home to draft petitions, gather information, and plant the, seeds of their future organization. It was Azucena's idea to go to the Plaza de Mayo and to ask for an audience with President Videla to find answers to their questions about the disappearances.

On April 30, 1977, fourteen mothers gathered at the Plaza de Mayo, ; traditionally the heart of Argentine civic life. By meeting there, the Mothers placed themselves in the public eye in a desperate attempt to bring attention to their families' plight. Labeled Las Locas de Plaza de Mayo {the crazies of the Plaza de Mayo), they broke the conspiracy of silence that had permeated the country and found a way to channel their despair and frustration into action. After that day, they and Argentina would never be the same.

The Mothers' marches became a weekly event, taking place every Thursday at 3:30 P.M. Forced to walk because of the regime's orders prohibiting public gatherings, they would walk slowly for half an hour. When the police tried to intimidate them and make them leave, they resisted and affirmed their right to demonstrate on behalf of their disappeared children.

Slowly their numbers started to grow, and they began wearing white handkerchiefs and carrying pictures of their missing children. The women asked their husbands not to join them in their weekly gatherings, afraid that the presence of the men would make the situation worse.

Maria Adela Antokoletz remembers: "We endured pushing, insults, attacks by the army, our clothes were ripped, detentions. But the men, they would not have been able to stand such things without reacting, there would have been incidents; they would have been arrested for disrupting the public order and, most likely, we would not have seen them ever again."

The minister of the interior, General Albano Harguindeguy, finally agreed to meet with three of the mothers. He tried to convince them that their children had left the country of their own free will, and warned them to stop their demonstrations. It was the first time that a high-ranking official had received the relatives. But the Mothers responded that they would continue their marches until they knew with certainty of their children's fate.

Placing advertisements in newspapers to publicize the names of the disappeared was one of the Mothers' main outreach activities. The newspapers requested hefty fees for these ads and demanded the certified addresses of ten of the signers, addresses that they subsequently gave to the police.

On December 8, 1977, at a meeting held in the Church of Santa Cruz to raise money for an ad, an ESMA Task Force broke in and kidnapped nine people. Among them was Sister Alice Domon, a French nun who had worked with peasants in some of the poorest regions of Argentina and who was a supporter of the Mothers. In Buenos Aires, Sister Domon had taught catechism to children with Down's syndrome, the son of General Videla among them.

Another supporter of the group was kidnapped from his home. And two days later-on December 10, Human Rights Day-Azucena Villaflor de DeVincenti and Leonie Duquet {another French nun) were abducted and joined the ranks of the disappeared. Survivors from the ESMA testified to having seen these twelve people at the camp, where they were brutally tortured.

The kidnapping of the two French nuns would eventually become a rallying point of international protest, which continues to this day. The government, which tried to blame the Montoneros for the kidnapping, showed pictures of the nuns under a fake Montonero sign. Sister Domon was forced to write a letter stating that she was in the "hands of an armed group" opposed to the government. In fact, Lieutenant Alfredo Astiz, a twenty-six-year-old sailor, had infiltrated the Mothers group, claiming to be the brother of a disappeared. Blue-eyed, young, and innocent looking, he had gained the trust of Azucena and Sister Domon.

Showing up at the gathering at the Santa Cruz church, Astiz alerted the ESMA Task Force as the meeting was drawing to an end. Azucena's disappearance failed to deter the group. "It was a hard time for us, but we weren't broken. They thought there was only one Azucena, but there wasn't just one. There were hundreds of us," said Aida de Suarez, one of the Mothers. Azucena herself, in a premonitory mood a few days before her abduction, had said: "If something happens to me, you continue. Do not forget it.

Thanks to their determination, courage, and intelligence, the Mothers began to attract international recognition and to receive support from governments and organizations concerned about human rights. Foreign journalists often covered their weekly marches; and on the occasion of the World Cup soccer championship in Buenos Aires in 1978, they focused on the Mothers, providing them with instant inter- national exposure.

The Mothers became the moral conscience of the country and gained a space in the political arena, challenging the notion of women as powerless and subservient to family and state.

Among the Mothers' weekly gatherings at the Plaza de Mayo were also women whose grandchildren were missing. In October 1977 twelve mothers established the Association of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and organized around one specific demand: that the children who had been kidnapped as a method of political repression be returned to their legitimate families. The Association grew quickly as dozens of grandmothers joined the group.

During the dictatorship, nine human rights organizations were active throughout Argentina. Some of the groups-such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared for Political Reasons-were started by relatives of the disappeared who were pressing the government for information about their family members. Others-Like the League for the Rights of Man, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH), and the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS)- collected and reported evidence of human rights violations and did a considerable amount of legal work.

Religious human rights groups also arose, such as the Peace and Justice Service {SERPAJ), the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights {MEDH), and the Jewish Movement for Human Rights {Movimiento Judfo por los Derechos Humanos). These last groups, respectively, incorporated members of the Catholic clergy who were critical of the church hierarchy, Protestant ministers, and Jews. All of the organizations were committed to a broad vision of social justice, and each responded to different pressures and particular histories of the community from which it emerged. They often helped each other and formed various alliances in response to the regime's multiple abuses"

Mothers who represented a moral conscience, a force strong enough to change the world. What a powerful symbol, and what we need to honor today. Be it the women in black, who gather around the world. Women in Israel, who ask forgiveness for those children killed on the Palestinian side as they forgive those who killed their children. Cindy Sheehan, one woman who asked why her son had been killed in Iraq, and camped outside President Bush and Obama's summer homes to protest against war. That people in the US did not support her is their shame.

And it is a shame that we only focus on human rights abuses and oppression in some countries but not our own. For that reason, I honor the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo. They call for peace and healing, for all of us.

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