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Monday 2 May 2011

Lost Children, Lost Parents

A few days ago Ernesto Sabato died. He was 99 years old, just a couple of months short of his century. He trained as a physicist but turned away from science and became a novelist and essayist. His novel The Tunnel, written in the forties, is probably his most famous, praised by, amongst others, Albert Camus and Graham Greene.

An Argentinian, of Italian and Albanian extraction, he later became more famous for what is usually referred to as The Sabato Report – an examination of the atrocities committed by the military dictatorship that collapsed after The Falklands War – or the Malvinas, as the Argentinians call the islands. He described this task as ‘a descent into hell’, but with scrupulous attention to detail he and others enumerated and detailed what they could.

Most people have heard of ‘los desaparecidos’ - literally the disappeared or ‘missing’ -, a word used to describe those that vanished, that is were killed, during the dictatorship. But today I want to talk of the children of the ‘disappeared’. They were often whisked away and adopted by ‘more suitable’ families. That is, families that supported the dictatorship.

In Argentina, events were so recent and raw that great efforts at reconciliation and examination were made to lay the dictatorship to rest. In Spain however a different approach was used. When Franco died in 1975 almost everybody was keen to move on, turn the page.

I am not recommending one approach or the other. The Argentinian dictatorship was relatively short and brutal. Franco’s was much longer. Either way, casualties and injustices persist. Some of these injustices are finally being faced.

For the entirety of the Franco regime, children were removed from ‘unsuitable’ parents to be ‘re-educated, and placed with 'suitable families’ for adoption - in return for money. As late as the early seventies sedated mothers gave birth to be told later the child had died and the body had already been disposed of. This was, with connivance of governmental and religious authorities, untrue. A month ago in a small town called Chiclana, near Cadiz, a meeting was held to inform those affected about the steps they should take to lodge a complaint with the investigating judge.

There are several hundred, possibly several thousand people in Spain, presently trying to establish contact with a child or parent. In Chiclana, and throughout the province of Cadiz, women of what the Spanish call humilde (humble) origin are coming to terms not just with the idea they were lied to, but also with trying to trace a person they thought was dead.

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