As a judge in Argentina read out the 50-year prison term handed down to former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, a courtroom packed with the families of the victims celebrated, feeling that justice had at last been delivered.
And no one watching Thursday’s historic sentencing in Buenos Aires had worked so hard for justice as the tenacious members of one of the world’s most renowned human rights groups, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
For more than three decades, they lobbied, searched for evidence and witnesses to prove that the leaders of a brutal junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 had systematically stolen the babies of political prisoners who were then summarily executed.
“It was truly a historic day,” Estela Barnes de Carlotto told Argentine radio. “It took a lot for us to make headway, but happily yesterday this came to an end with these convictions that show there had been a systematic plan.”
In addition to Videla, the court sentenced Reynaldo Bignone, the last of the junta’s dictators, to a 15-year term. A half-dozen other military figures received prison terms ranging from 14 to 40 years.
The president of the tribunal that oversaw the long trial against the former officers, Maria del Carmen Roqueta, called the baby thefts “crimes against humanity.”
“They were carried out in a systematic practice,” Roqueta said, in which babies were secretly stolen while their mothers were murdered.
Long before most of Argentina believed that the military’s henchmen were kidnapping babies, a group of mothers whose children had been kidnapped had formed to find out what happened to their loved ones.
They came to the conclusion that their children had been murdered but that they had likely given birth while in secret torture centers. They then founded the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.
Their goal over the last 35 years had been to locate their missing grandchildren, many of whom the dictatorship turned over to military officers to raise, and to bring those who oversaw the thefts and the murders to trial.
Working from musty offices in a classical old building near Congress, their offices are often a beehive of activity. Secretaries answer phones, lawyers prepare legal briefs and a few of the grandmothers plan strategy.
Among the leaders is Rosa Tarlovsky de Roisinblit, 92, an active member for 34 years. Her daughter, Patricia, was one of the victims of the dictatorship, which had sought to stamp out dissent by kidnapping and torturing leftists and making them disappear.
“On Oct. 6, 1978, they kidnapped my daughter, who was eight months pregnant,” Roisinblit said.
With nowhere to turn, she did the only thing she could: protest — joining others seeking information about missing loved ones. They marched on the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Presidential Palace, where people still continue to rally.
In time, Roisinblit learned that her daughter was taken to the most notorious of all the dictatorship’s secret torture centers, the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires.
There, Patricia gave birth to a boy. She then disappeared, never to be found.
But Roisinblit never gave up searching for her grandson, or the grandchildren of other young women who vanished after being taken prisoner.
“It’s been 34 years of work,” Roisinblit said. “Not one day or two days, but 34 years.”
In her case, the persistence paid off when an anonymous caller phoned the Grandmothers’ offices more than 12 years ago. He identified a 21-year-old man as her grandson.
DNA testing and an official investigation proved the young man to be Roisinblit’s grandson — and not the son of the Air Force official who had adopted him illegally.
“He’s married now with two children,” Roisinblit said, “and I’m now a great-grandmother. I consider myself privileged compared to other grandmothers who have not found their grandchildren.”
‘My Days Are Numbered’
Her grandson was one of 106 grandchildren the grandmothers have located. But another 400 grandchildren born to political prisoners remain unaccounted for.
Among those still looking is Elsa Sanchez de Oesterheld, who on a recent day led two visitors into a small room in her cramped Buenos Aires apartment and opens a closet.
She unfurled canvases painted by her eldest, Estela. She also talked about the poems written by another daughter, Diana. There were two other daughters, Beatriz and Marina.
All four were killed in the late 1970s by the security forces, along with their father, Hector Oesterheld, who had been a famous cartoonist.
But Oesterheld still holds out hope: Diana and Marina were both pregnant when detained. It’s possible they gave birth before being executed, Oesterheld said, and perhaps their babies were adopted by military officers.
“We don’t know where they are,” said Oesterheld. “We haven’t recovered them. We assume they’re in someone’s care, because in general they didn’t kill the babies.”
Still, Oesterheld is now 87. And she said she doesn’t really expect to ever be united with them.
“My days are numbered,” she said. “I won’t live to be 100. I could die at any moment.”
Indeed, the leaders of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo say they are well aware of what the passage of time means for the aging women.
The group is preparing for the future. It has lawyers, psychologists and clerks who are young; some are recovered grandchildren themselves.
“I’d say that young people are the majority of those who work in the Grandmothers group,” said Alan Iud, 31, who oversees a team of lawyers at the organization. “I think this is a characteristic of human rights organizations and I think that’s good, to incorporate young people into the group.”
Roisinblit said workers such as Iud will keep up the search for the missing grandchildren long after she is gone.
“Each day that passes we are older,” she said. “So the group that we started, which was bigger, is now each day smaller. Lamentably, that is the way it is.”