Quarantined Argentines use balconies to honour disappeared

For many years now, Ofelia Agorio has spent March 24 in the embrace of the multitudes, marching in an annual demonstration to honour the victims of Argentina’s last military dictatorship and carrying a photo of her brother, Nelson, who was among them.But this year she marked the day in the house she was born – the home she shared with Nelson – under mandatory quarantine with the rest of the country, repudiating the atrocities of the so-called Dirty War in the era of social distancing and the novel coronavirus.

“Isolation is heavy … but now there is another threat,” said Agorio, in a telephone interview from Baradero, about 150km (93 miles) from the capital city.

Even before President Alberto Fernandez placed Argentina on lockdown in order to combat COVID-19, organisers of the march on the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice had cancelled the public event because of the dangers posed by the virus. They read an address on public television instead, and urged people to show their support through social media, and by displaying on their balconies or doors white handkerchiefs, which symbolise the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, who fought against the dictatorship that stretched from 1976 to 1983. The coup d’etat occurred on March 24, 1976.

It was a period of terror in Argentina, as the military government orchestrated a “national reorganisation process” against people it called “subversives” – armed political groups, left-wing activists, student organisers, journalists, clergy and many others. Death squads hunted them down, kidnapped, tortured, killed and buried people in unmarked graves. Human rights groups estimate the “desaparecidos” – “the disappeared” – total as many as 30,000 here.

Agorio was 13 years old when her brother Nelson disappeared in 1976. He was murdered and his remains would later be identified by a forensic team. She said the pandemic highlights the importance of what people like him were fighting for.

“Because, in these terrible times, only some of us can isolate and take care of ourselves. The rest are living through a situation of poverty and fear,” she said. “So, what is happening to me this 24th, is that today more than ever the ideals of the 30,000 ring true again. Ideals of health, education, better distribution of wealth, work for everyone, equality. And we understand, yet again, why they erased them from the face of the earth.”

Fernando Haber, a lawyer who specialises in labour rights, remembers the moment he was taken by the military in November 1976.

He was a law student, and member of the Juventud Universitaria Peronista, a political group that distributed food, helped educate and organise people in the poor barrios.

“I was 21; I was just a kid,” he said. “We never thought that this dictatorship was going to be this bloody.” But the danger quickly became apparent, and he quit his job at the meteorological service.

When he went to collect his last paycheque in Buenos Aires, he was picked up by the security forces. He remembers the precise block where he was stuffed into the boot of a Ford Falcon, in broad daylight with people around, and taken to a clandestine detention centre where he was eventually tortured.

Thanks to pressure from human rights groups, he was officially declared a political prisoner, and held in jail, without charge. He was not released until July 1981.

In isolation now, his thoughts have cast back to what he lived through while imprisoned. But it is very different, he says. “It’s not the same thing as in the 1970s or 1980s, when there was a fierce repression and you had to be hiding so that the assassins didn’t find you, and eliminate you,” he said.

“This is a different kind of enemy. I applaud the president for having the intelligence to make the decisions that had to be made, and that other countries have not.”

He spent this year in reflection. “I’ve never missed a march. This is the march of remembrance. We’ve spent 44 years, and we’ve managed to transmit to our children and grandchildren that experience. That is what we’ve accomplished.”

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