How can I forget what happened to my children?

Renee Epelbaum's three children 'disappeared' during Argentina's brutal military dictatorship. Twenty years later, she and other mothers are still fighting for justice.
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"I have never cried for my children. I'm scared that if I start, I may never be able to stop." For Renee Epelbaum, one of the founding members of Argentina's Mothers of the Disappeared, time hasn't healed the wounds. It is 20 years now since all three of her children were kidnapped by military government death squads. "Time has a calming effect," she says. "But I can't forgive, nor can I forget."

Today a group of women, many in their sixties and seventies, will meet in the Alvear theatre in downtown Buenos Aires where Peres Esquivel, winner of the Nobel peace prize, will present them with The International Prize for Activists 1997. The women who are being honoured all have one thing in common. Between 1976 and 1983 their children were taken by a sinister alliance of police, military personnel and right-wing death squads known as "working groups", acting under government orders. The vast majority were never seen again. The children of these women were amongst some 30,000 Argentines abducted by a paranoid military dictatorship which considered them subversive. Most of those who were abducted remain in an odd state of limbo, not officially dead but rather desaparecidos or "disappeared".

Photographs line the walls of the spacious eighth-floor apartment where Renee Epelbaum has lived for the past 30 years. There are snapshots of babies, children's birthday parties and family holidays. One of the pictures is of a man in his early forties. "I always say I have had three lives," Renee explains. "Before my husband died, before my children were taken away, and afterwards."

The Epelbaums were a close-knit, upper-middle-class family. Renee's husband, Raul, died suddenly at the age of 46, leaving his wife to bring up the children. Luis, the eldest, was interested in science and had wanted to be a doctor since he was a child. Claudio was the most outgoing of the three. He was interested in the arts and played the clarinet. Lila was a shy girl who had a passion for dance and had taken lessons since she was little. On 10 August, 1976, Luis was detained as he left the medical school where he was studying to be a psychiatrist. "You have to understand," Renee explains, "at that time any whisper of criticism of the government was dangerous. Luis attended meetings at the university faculty where politics was discussed, and that was considered subversive."

Renee feared for the safety of her two younger children, who were understandably critical of the regime that had taken their brother. Lila and Claudio were sent to Uruguay, where their mother thought they would be safer. They were not. According to the doorman at the house where they were staying, a car with Argentine number plates followed them for several days. On 4 November, 1976, Claudio and Lila Epelbaum also "disappeared".

Renee still finds it difficult to talk about what happened. "I could never work out what the death squads wanted with two children. Claudio was a musician and wrote poems." She points to a photograph of a sensitive- looking teenager. "Does he look like he was a threat to the country?"

Several months later, Renee met a boy who had been kidnapped and later released. He had seen her children, he said. "Claudio used to make music with his chains," he told her. The boy had been responsible for dishing out the food at the concentration camp where the Epelbaums were being held and had overheard interrogation sessions. "You'll see them again," he assured her. "They haven't got anything on your children." But Renee never did see her children again.

There are thousands of cases like Renee Epelbaum's. Estimates vary from 10,000 to 40,000. The Mothers put the figure at around 30,000 cases. Some were indeed leftist guerrillas, others had left-wing sympathies, and many simply got caught in the net. The mandate of the military government's "working groups" was to cleanse the country of anyone who had the slightest hint of leftist tendencies. In one case a group of secondary school children protesting against a rise in bus fares were detained and executed.

The Mothers' fight began on 30 April, 1977. In a country paralysed by fear, 14 women decided to break the ban on public meetings and gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to demand information on their children. The group grew from 14 to around 400; women from all social backgrounds united by their missing children. Renee Epelbaum was one of those women.

Stories of the most appalling tortures, of rape and executions, started to be circulated by the handful of prisoners who had escaped or been let out of the concentration camps. It wasn't until 1983, however, when the democratic government of Raul Alfonsin took over the reins of leadership from the military after the Falklands war that graves started being unearthed. Alfonsin set up a commission to investigate the fate of the disappeared. Its findings confirmed the horrific rumours. Kidnappings by death squads usually included a complete ransacking of the houses of victims. Children were at times taken to detention centres and made to watch their parents being tortured, or they themselves were tortured in the presence of their parents. Pregnant mothers were allowed to give birth before being executed; their babies were then sold to childless members of the military, police or death squads. Systematic torture and execution had been carried out in more than 300 concentration camps around the country.

No perdonamos, no olvidamos ("We don't forgive, we don't forget") is spray-painted on flyovers, walls and magazine kiosks throughout Buenos Aires. Renee Epelbaum finds it hard to forgive and forget. "How can I forget what happened to my three children? As for forgiving, I don't know if I could shake hands with my children's torturers."

Last year the Catholic Church publicly asked for forgiveness for the involvement of priests in Argentina's "dirty war". The heads of the armed forces also formally expressed their regret for atrocities committed between 1976 and 1983, following the televised confession of a naval officer who detailed how prisoners, still alive, had been thrown into the sea from aeroplanes. The wave of mea culpas appeased few. The perpetrators of atrocities are still free to walk the streets, due to laws instituted by Alfonsin under threat of a further military uprising. The handful of military leaders who had been tried and imprisoned under the Alfonsin government were pardoned by the country's present leader, Carlos Menem.

The Mothers are optimistic that one day those responsible for the atrocities of the dictatorship will be punished. Claims earlier this month that Spain's intelligence service possesses microfilms of files which detail the abduction and torture of Argentina's disappeared are being treated cautiously, however. If the files are genuine and become declassified, it may lead to international action against the guilty. But the Mothers have been disappointed before.

On Thursday they will put on white headscarves embroidered with the names of their missing children and meet in the Plaza de Mayo, outside Argentina's presidential palace, as they have done every Thursday for the past 20 years. Like the tomb of Evita, the weekly marches have become a part of the Buenos Aires tourist trail. But the "mad women of the Plaza de Mayo" are more than just a relic of Argentina's turbulent recent history. "It's important to remember,"says Renee. "To remember our children and to keep alive the memory of what happened here so that it never happens again"n