Children stolen by their parents' killers during Argentina's dictatorship are finally being reunited with their families.
Sunday, July 18, 2010 - 20:30

Imagine being told your parents are not your real parents. Even worse, the people who raised you had in fact helped to kidnap, torture and murder your real mum and dad.

It's the truth facing as many as 500 people born during the late 1970s in Argentina, when the country's military dictatorship detained and killed thousands of political opponents.

After their parents 'disappeared', the children were given away to supporters of the dictatorship to raise as their own.

Video journalist David O'Shea has been to meet a group of determined grandmothers leading the fight to reunite those children with what's left of their families, and he hears the stories of some of the 101 stolen babies reunited so far.

The Grandmothers announced in September 2010 that the 102nd stolen baby had been reunited with his family. Click here to read more.

Live Chat

Video journalist David O’Shea and his fixer in Argentina, Nick Olle, were online after the program on Sunday 18th July to answer questions about Argentina's stolen children finally being reunited with their families.

The chat ran from 9.30pm-10.30pm AEST, so apologies to viewers of later showings, but David and Nick were only available online for a limited time. Anyone who missed the chat can replay it below or leave comments on the story here.

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Imagine this - you grow up quite rightly presuming that the two people calling themselves your mother and father are indeed your real parents, only to find out later that they are actually impostors. Not only that, you discover - but can scarcely believe - they may have also been involved in the brutal death of your real parents. Well, of late, this dramatic tale has been unfolding in Argentina, and it stretches way back to the dark days of that country's infamous military junta and the brave souls who opposed it. But why don't we let reporter David O'Shea take up the story?

REPORTER: David O'Shea

This is how thousands of Argentineans had their freedom torn from them. In the late 1970s, the Videla military dictatorship rounded up its political opponents. Most would be tortured, and ultimately executed at one of 500 secret prisons.

WOMAN, ARGENTINA, 1978 (Translation): Weren't my grandchildren born? Where are those babies?

Distraught relatives were left desperate for answers.

WOMAN 2, ARGENTINA, 1978 (Translation): They lie. We've been like this for two years.

WOMAN 3, ARGENTINA, 1978 (Translation): My daughter was pregnant when they took her. My grandchild must have been born in August last year and I have heard nothing about him.

WOMAN, ARGENTINA, 1978 (Translation): We only want to know where our children are, dead or alive?

SABRINA, OFFICIAL GUIDE: This used to be one of the clandestine centres of detention during the last dictatorship.

This is the navy's former Mechanical School in Buenos Aires, known as ESMA, once home to the biggest and most notorious of the secret prisons.

SABRINA: Here passed about 5,000 disappeared people - 5,000 detainees. Most of them are still disappeared.

The whole complex is now preserved as a memorial and I am being shown around by official guides - Celeste and Sabrina.

SABRINA: It kept on being a school while the place was turned into a concentration camp as well. So the place had a double function during the whole period of the dictatorship.

To this day, the ESMA officers have maintained a pact of silence, so the prison's workings have been pieced together from the testimony of a handful of survivors.

SABRINA: The basement was, in general, the first place where the detainees were taken to, because this was the place where the torture chambers used to be - where the detainees used to be questioned under torture.

Of all the horrific crimes that occurred here, perhaps none was more perverse than the systematic theft of the babies of doomed pregnant captives.

CELESTE, OFFICIAL GUIDE: Maybe we can talk about that upstairs where the clandestine maternity was.

500 babies are known to have been born in captivity - 35 of them here, at ESMA. Once the baby was strong enough, the mother was killed and an officer took the baby home or handed it on to an accomplice.

CELESTE: This used to be probably the clandestine maternity - or the pregnant women's bedrooms.

VICTOR BASTERA, ESMA CAMP SURVIVER (Translation): I looked at that child... and it seemed impossible that in this place of death, torture and suffering a life would appear.

Victor Bastera is a survivor of the ESMA concentration camp. He remembers the arrival of a young couple called Sylvia and Orlando. They had two small children, and Sylvia was pregnant with a third.

VICTOR BASTERA (Translation): It was strange seeing the children running in the corridors while their father was being tortured. They were playing in total innocence. Then Sylvia Dameri gave birth.

Bastera says he was ordered to help at the birth and was the first to hold the newborn child.

VICTOR BASTERA (Translation): Shortly afterwards Sylvia Dameri and Orlando Ruiz disappeared and the baby and the other two children also disappeared.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): We never imagined, those of us who went out looking for our children and grandchildren that this was a systematic plan executed in a very perverse manner.

Estella de Carlotto is the long-term president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organisation that's been searching for babies stolen by the regime's military and police officers.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): After the birth of their baby those young women were eliminated and the child was given another name, another history, another family. It took us a long while for us to realise this was happening because after several years no child had been returned.

But over time, with the help of DNA testing, the grandmothers have identified some of those children and this man is one of them. Juan Cabandie was one of the 35 babies born at ESMA. He was handed to a police intelligence officer who became his dad.

JUAN CABANDIE, ESMA BABY (Translation): I found out when I was 26. I lived a lie for 26 years. 26 years without knowing who I was.

REPORTER (Translation): How were you treated by your parents, your...?

JUAN CABANDIE (Translation): Appropriators... It wasn't a good relationship. The appropriator was a violent person. He had a very strict nature. A very strong personality... An aggressive, violent man.

On his office wall, Juan now has photos of his real parents. He thinks the abuse from his adoptive father may have been because he looked so much like his mother.

JUAN CABANDIE (Translation): I think he was violent with me because facing me was a challenge. Each time he saw me he was faced with the horror of his crime. And I believe that, because he was an enemy of my parents, he put all his anger and hatred into me.

There is no doubt Juan's left-wing activist parents would be proud of their son. He is now a politician, here at the Buenos Aires city government. When the ESMA Memorial opened, Juan was invited there to make a speech. These are the words he read:

JUAN CABANDIE (Translation): My mother was detained in this place. She was very likely tortured and I was born here, in this very building. But the sinister plan of the dictatorship couldn't erase the ancestral memory passing through my veins that led me to the truth. I was her first and only son and both she and I would have liked to be together but this blasted system didn't allow it. Please don't let this happen again. Thank you Grandmothers, thanks to all.

The fate of thousands of people is still a mystery but every so often, a family is reunited with one of the stolen children, as happened to Marcos Suarez who disappeared when he was just 1-year-old.

MARCOS SUAREZ, STOLEN CHILD (Translation): The little I know is that first they took my mother. I stayed with my father and the 10 December was the last time we were seen, my dad and me.

REPORTER (Translation): Were you taken in together?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): That's what nobody knows.

While his relatives were joining demonstrations and searching for him, Marcos grew up blissfully unaware. But the woman who called herself his mum had no partner, living only with her sister, so his friends started asking the obvious question.

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): On Fathers Day at school ... "Where is your dad? What happened?" The same questions they asked me, I was asking this woman who raised me, and her sister. But I never got a clear answer, something coherent. It was always something up in the air.

REPORTER (Translation): Like what?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): Like "They had an accident." "But where? When? Tell me the route, the date." They didn't. They never confirmed anything.

That woman died when Marcos was 14 and she took her secret to the grave. Years later, Marcos finally went to see the Grandmothers, who helped him identify his father and to his great shock, his real mother too.

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): The one thing that annoys me and will stay with me for the rest of my life is the lie. If I had never asked, I would have put up with it. I would have said "I didn't ask" but I asked everyone and they never said a thing. That really hurts.

Marcos takes me to meet his only surviving grandmother, Modesta, who he first met just four years ago.

REPORTER (Translation): How was that moment?

MODESTA, GRANDMOTHER (Translation): I cried. He said nothing.

REPORTER (Translation): You said nothing?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): Because I couldn't believe it. It was something. I couldn't take much in that day.

REPORTER (Translation): You don't remember the day?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): Yes, I remember. But I couldn't understand how I could be there with her.

It didn't connect.

MODESTA (Translation): No. I was very moved, that's all. I cried when he was taken and I cried when he returned.

Marcos's real mother, Maria Teresa, was a medical student and activist who disappeared when she was 20. For Modesta, the similarities between her missing daughter and Marcos are obvious.

MODESTA (Translation): She was very independent and had a strong character. He also has a strong character.

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): It makes me laugh because it's for a reason. It comes from somewhere. its the genes! Here's my father, my mother and me in her tummy.

REPORTER (Translation): What do you feel looking at that photo?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): A sense of impotence, because I would have liked to... I mean I met her, but I have no memory of her. The good thing about all of this is that I can be with her and at least she tells me stories and I can build something but still... I can't get closure. I don't like that.

Reuniting these families isn't easy. The process starts here at the Carlos Durand hospital. Inside is the national DNA databank, which holds 18,000 samples from the relatives of the disappeared. People come and give a blood sample then go back to waiting in the hope that their lost relatives will one day come here too and the match can be made.

INTERN 1 (Translation): What they are doing here is purifying the DNA.

INTERN 2 (Translation): We're going to get the nucleotide sequence to compare the DNA.

So far they have managed to reunite 101 children with their biological families. The people here know how special their work is.

INTERN 2 (Translation): I think it's the only way to return someone's identity. It proves that someone is a certain person and from this you can begin to construct their identity. I think it's really important work.

For the people referred here by the Grandmothers, the laboratory's results can resolve years of gnawing uncertainty.

JUAN CABANDIE (Translation): I think the doubts I had were because I felt I was very different to this family. I thought differently from them. One day I developed the theory that I wasn't these people's son. As soon as I suspected I wasn't their son... I sensed that I could be the son of the 'disappeared'. Then I approached the Plaza de Mayo Grandmothers to clarify my doubts.

Today the head of the Grandmothers, Estella de Carlotto, is attending a human rights meeting. Her decades of effort to reconnect relatives has turned up some amazing results. The most recent - reunion number 101 - happened when a street performer walked in to their office. When his DNA results came back they caused a sensation. He turned out to be the son of one of the key people working at the Grandmothers - Estella's secretary Abel Madariaga.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): We went and told him in his house that we had found his son. The outburst of joy was conveyed in several languages! Because he couldn't believe it! He thought we were lying.

Abel's pregnant wife had disappeared more than 30 years ago. He had escaped into exile. Now he and his son were quickly reunited at the office.

ABEL MADARIAGA (Translation): It was crazy, the hug was brutal, really brutal. It was almost the most beautiful feeling I've had in my life.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): The way they fell into each other's arms was as if that 32-year-old young man had been a baby. With the father hugging that baby after years of tireless searching. They've been together ever since.

Francisco had left his appropriator's home at 16, and had been living on the streets before finally coming to the Grandmothers in search of answers.

ABEL MADARIAGA (Translation): Now he has a big family... a real one, with the same blood.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): It's like a romance between them, they get on so well. And his son lives with him.

REPORTER (Translation): Getting to know him?

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): Absolutely! I think it's the picture of the ideal reunion.

Abel's assistant has seen a transformation in his colleague since the reunion.

MAN (Translation): Yes, I think he has changed. He's softened. His character has softened. It definitely has.

Francisco has chosen not to speak to the media as he prepares himself to testify against his former father, a brutal military intelligence officer. But their story is already a media sensation.

ABEL MADARIAGA (Translation): The press conference was crazy. Really... It was long... The number of flashes there, the number of journalists crying there... It was incredible.

If Francisco and Abel's reunion was big news, what's happening now, could be even bigger. It turns out not everyone wants to be reunited.

FELIPE HERRERA (Translation): We are Felipe and Marcella Noble Herrera - children of Ernestina Laura Herrera de Noble.

These are the children of one of the richest and most influential families in Argentina. They were adopted, but don't want to know who their real parents are. Now they are being forced by law to find out. They believe their case is being used to attack the family business - the Clarin media empire.

MARCELLA HERRERA (Translation): We don't want to be the tools of a political attack, or be used by the government to attack Clarin, or be the tools of manipulated genetic analysis.

Even the President has weighed in against them.

MARCELLA HERRERA (Translation): Is the President interested in us, or does she need us to be children of the disappeared? Does she need to find that our mother adopted two children of disappeared? And then what? Does she need to present her as an appropriator?

Their mother is Ernestina Herrera de Noble, who has been a political force for decades. Her media outlets are regularly at odds with the current left-wing government. Now she stands accused of stealing the two babies she says she adopted in 1976. The Grandmothers say that irregularities in the adoption papers and an 8-year legal battle to prevent the children giving DNA samples already indicate a guilty conscience.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): I would have said, "do the tests to ensure everything's in order." All this delay gave good reason to believe that there was a very dark secret here. But for us Grandmothers, we don't care that she is rich and powerful, we are only interested in those two people - Felipe and Marcella.

In May, federal police officers raided their home to confiscate items of clothing gaining DNA samples against their will.

MARCELLA HERRERA (Translation): They took my undies, my stockings, my pants and T-shirt. He's dressed like this because they took his coat, his pants, his undies and his shirt.

For Marcella, it's an outrageous invasion of privacy.

MARCELLA HERRERA (Translation): We had to take our clothes off in front of seven people! So where is the care for the victim? Where are our rights? We were adopted legally by our mother. It was her greatest act of love. We see it in her every day. This is a family that is suffering. A family they want to break up and slander. We are the children of a mother who chose us, and who we choose every day.

But the Grandmothers insist they had no right to refuse when a terrible crime might have been committed.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): So when it is reported, the justice system is obliged to solve the crime. So even if the child doesn't want it, he must be told it isn't a matter of whether you want or not, it's a right and it's an obligation.

Marcos Suarez agrees with the policy of forced testing because he has seen the effect the truth had on his real family.

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): It's like getting a piece of your child back. It was like when I met my grandmother. She can die happy now. Yes, she lost her daughter, but she found her grandson, with whom she lived for four months, to whom she fed puree and changed nappies. It's something really crazy.

Today, Marcos is watching his own son play football. For most of their lives, his children knew him as Gustavo. Then suddenly Gustavo was gone. For the family, his transformation into Marcos Suarez was life changing.

REPORTER (Translation): Is Gustavo the same person as Marcos?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): No, no, no.

REPORTER (Translation): Why not? He's the same person. The same... Same body, same mind?

MARCOS SUAREZ (Translation): No, no way. Gustavo was... he was a different person. He thought differently. Marcos has discovered many things Gustavo didn't know. I knew that there was a phantom inside me that wanted out. Marcos wanted to get out, and had to come out eventually.

The relatives of the disappeared go on searching for answers, as they have for 30 years. Too many are still wondering if they'll ever find the grandchildren they've never known.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): As time passes, there's more urgency. Waiting 32 years to find our grandchildren is a lifetime! We were much younger. We're now perhaps in our final years and we want to have the joy of finding and hugging them.

Estella knows her captured daughter gave birth to a baby boy just before she was killed. She's clinging to the hope that one day she will be reunited with her grandson.

ESTELLA DE CARLOTTO (Translation): Before I leave this world, I want to hug him. I have so many things to tell him. I have so many things to show him I collected things on my trips, I have boxes full of things to give him, so he knows how much we have looked for him. And there's a family waiting for him and, although his parents are not around, his cousins and uncles are. And me, the last grandma he has left!

GEORGE NEGUS: Absolutely riveting. David O'Shea, filming and reporting from Argentina and the man himself is here with me in the studio. David, well done, it must have been one hell of an emotional rollercoaster doing that story?

DAVID O'SHEA, DATELINE VIDEOJOURNALIST: Well, you are dealing with some pretty raw emotion there. There's a real trauma. Some of these people have not only found out these terrible things about their past, but they have also seen their appropriator families through the courts. Some of them have been sentenced to many years in jail.

GEORGE NEGUS: That it is also a microcosm, it isn't it, of that awful recent history of that country - the brutal regime of the military junta? How have ordinary Argentineans dealt with the problem? Are they taking it in? Are they even seeing the past right before their very eyes, being carried out in these people's lives?

DAVID O'SHEA: With up to 30,000 people disappeared in these years there are a lot of families that have a direct connection to someone who disappeared. So this is an issue that is always in the background in Argentina it is just that because it has been rolling for so many years - 30 years is a long time - it only really becomes an issue now when they find and identify a new child.

GEORGE NEGUS: And because the Grandmothers are out there every week, aren't they? In the main square?

DAVID O'SHEA: It is slow work.

GEORGE NEGUS: Indeed. But it seems to be coming to some sort of fruition now. The rich kids, for want of a better way to describe them, the ones that got the long straw, not the short straw, in that whole situation, how do think it is going to pan out? Because it has this strange sort of human rights aspect to it plus the fact that there are obviously doing pretty well. They don't want they past to come back.

DAVID O'SHEA: Who knows? You don't really hear much from them, themselves. We hear a lot from their lawyers because they have got a team of lawyers arguing their case. It is actually all back in my hands of the lawyer's now because the DNA samples that we saw taken from their house at the end of May have somehow been tainted. So the national databank was unable to map the DNA profile from those items of clothing taken as we saw in the film. So it is now, as I say, back in their hands of the lawyers as they argue over where that tainting took place and whether they can either have a new test and get new samples or whether just sort of brush it aside.

GEORGE NEGUS: It is all wheels within wheels, isn't it? But please keep us in touch because it is an absolutely intriguing story. We found ourselves saying it is both heartbreaking and heart-warming. David, thanks for that.













Original Music composed by


Archive material courtesy of Espacio para la Memoria

Photographs courtesy of Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo

18th July 2010