Grandmothers hunt for kidnapped babies

The mothers of murdered Argentines are still tracing their grandchildre n, writes Phil Davison in Buenos Aires

As a middle-aged granny, she was an unlikely private eye. Pretending to read newspapers, Elsa Pavon, then 46, spent weeks on a park bench in the Chacarita district of Buenos Aires, watching the block of flats opposite. She was determined to find her missing granddaughter, who disappeared as a baby in 1978 in the military's "Dirty War" against left-wingers.

Mrs Pavon is one of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group less well known than the Mothers of the same square. The latter have demonstrated there every Thursday for 19 years, demanding news of their missing sons and daughters and legal action against their kidnappers and executioners. The Grandmothers are looking for "the living disappeared ones", the babies and children taken from women who were kidnapped and murdered under military rule from 1976 to 1983.

Recent admissions by military officers that atrocities took place have raised hopes among relatives of the missing that the people who adopted the kidnapped babies may come forward.

"Now it is up to [President Carlos] Menem, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to trace and return the missing children," Estela Carlotto, one of the Grandmothers, said.

As they searched for news of their missing daughters, the Abuelas (Grandmothers) found out that the military had allotted the children of kidnapped women to childless military or police families. Pregnant detainees were held until they had their babies. The mothers were then executed; the babies distributed.

Until military rule ended in December 1984, the Grandmothers met in secret, referring to themselves on the phone as "the old dears" and the missing children as "the flowers."

The Grandmothers havetraced 56 children. Most wereturned to grandparents or aunts. They are still looking for 217. But they believe there may be 200 or 300 more who have not been claimed, as their families did not know of the pregnancy.

Mrs Pavon's daughter, Monica Logares, and her husband Claudio Logares, were liberals who fled to Uruguay with their baby, Paula. They reckoned without the collaboration between the Argentinian and Uruguayan generals, however, and they disappeared in Montevideo in May 1978. Paula was 23 months old.

As the Abuelas became organised, they took out newspaper ads and published snapshots of the missing children. In 1983, the Grandmothers got an anonymous tip that a girl matching Paula Logares' description was living with an ex-policeman called Ruben Lavallen. After weeks of observation, Mrs Pavon overcame her nerves and knocked at the Lavallens' door, posing as a saleswoman.

"It was like looking at her mother, Monica, my daughter, as a child. It was uncanny," Mrs Pavon recalls.

Other Grandmothers posed as school-portrait photographers, to get pictures of Paula at school. The evidence was presented to a judge later that year. After hearings in which genetic tests showed that Mrs Pavon was almost certainly the child's grandmother, Paula was handed over to her.

In 1988, a judge granted Paula the right to change her name back from Lavallen to Logares and get new identity documents, listing her as the daughter of her true parents.

"Finally, justice was recognising her existence," Mrs Pavon said. "It was also recognising the existence of my daughter, Monica, and her husband, Claudio. They had tried to wipe my daughter from history, but they couldn't."

After the return of democracy, bodies buried under headstones reading N N, short for No Nombre, meaning No Name, were exhumed. They found Roberto and Barbara Lanouscou, aged five and six, both shot in the back. In a third small grave, where they expected to find the Lanouscous' baby sister, Matilde, they found a teddy bear. The grave had been a decoy. The baby was presumably given away. She is still missing.

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