Obituary: Renee Epelbaum

Harold Briley
Tuesday 24 February 1998 00:02 GMT

RENEE Epelbaum was one of the most courageous and most tragic figures of Argentina's "Dirty War" of repression, waged by successive military juntas against their own people between 1976 and 1983.

She was a founding member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, campaigning on behalf of those whose children were killed during Argentine military rule. They took their name from the famous square where they have demonstrated in front of the Presidential Palace every week since 1977.

It has been a remarkably durable human rights organisation when even to join the mothers in their demonstrations could add your name to the list of "desaparecedos", "the disappeared" - people systematically kidnapped, tortured and disposed of without trace by Argentina's military death squads. No demonstration in Argentina's violent past has lasted as long as the mothers have, crying out for punishment of the perpetrators, and information about their missing relatives.

Renee Epelbaum became the most active and best known of the founding members. She was a highly intelligent businesswoman who spoke good English. She became an eloquent spokesperson of their campaign, taking it beyond the Plaza de Mayo and Argentina's borders - to the United Nations and other international forums, as the evidence the military tried to suppress remorselessly emerged.

What was different about her tragedy was that not all her three children disappeared within Argentina. Her son Luis, a quiet, conscientious medical student of 25, was detained as he left his university in Buenos Aires in 1976. Her other son, Claudio, aged 23, a law student, and Lila, 20, a dancer, were sent to their holiday home in neighbouring Uruguay, in the seaside resort of Punta del Este, where she thought they would be safe. But Argentine military kidnap squads pursued them there, in co-operation with Uruguay's military regime, and they too disappeared in 1976.

Renee, herself, was an only child of a Jewish family, already widowed when her husband, Raul, died a natural death, aged 46. When I saw her in her darkened flat in an affluent district of Buenos Aires, she would talk fondly of her missing children, lamenting the fact that she would never have any grandchildren. She said: "My future died the day my daughter and two sons disappeared."

She would point to the pictures - young, sensitive faces - and ask why their young lives should have been so cruelly snatched away. "I have never cried for my children," she said. "I'm afraid that if I start, I may never be able to stop. My pain is as great today as the day they disappeared. A mother can never forget her children. We must keep their memory alive."

In 1979, she met a fellow captive from her children's concentration camp, one of the very few to be released, who told her that he had heard them being interrogated and that they should be released because they had done nothing wrong. (Her children - like most of the estimated 30,000 who disappeared - were innocent of any crime.) He told her that Claudio, a musician and poet, used to make music with the chains that bound him.

Renee Epelbaum lived long enough to see the organisation she pioneered complete 21 years of peaceful protest. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have come of age. Their children never will. Many were dumped in mass graves marked with the initials "N.N." - "No Name". Other bodies were thrown from helicopters into the Atlantic Ocean. France, Italy and Sweden have tried in vain to extradite military officers for the disappearance of hundreds of their citizens in Argentina.

The mothers still gather every Thursday to shuffle around the square, past the Presidential Palace, with their white headscarves bearing the names of their children and the date they disappeared.

Last year Renee Epelbaum's courage and persistence were recognised by the award to the mothers of the International Prize for Activists, presented by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Peres Esquivel. Right up to her death, she stayed in the forefront of the campaign, demanding a repeal of Argentina's amnesty laws which halted any further prosecution of the military murder squads and released the few who had been jailed. "Unless we learn the truth about the desaparecedos," she said, "our sadness will never end. Argentina will be forever haunted by their ghosts."

Mrs Renee Epelbaum, campaigner: born Entre Rios Province, Argentina 1920; married Raul Epelbaum (deceased; two sons and one daughter deceased); died Buenos Aires 7 February 1998.

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