Argentina's Dirty War Still Haunts Youngest Victims From 1976 to 1983, a vicious military dictatorship ruled Argentina. Among its crimes: taking hundreds of babies from their biological parents — political prisoners who then "disappeared." A group of determined grandmothers has been seeking to identify these stolen orphans.
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Argentina's Dirty War Still Haunts Youngest Victims

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Argentina's Dirty War Still Haunts Youngest Victims

Argentina's Dirty War Still Haunts Youngest Victims

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Since the 1970s, a group of determined grandmothers in Argentina has been searching for the babies their children delivered when they were prisoners of the military dictatorship. In the depravity that characterized Argentina back then, the young mothers were killed after giving birth and the babies were given to military families to raise. Now with the grandmothers well in their 80s, time is running out for them to retrieve their missing grandchildren.

Juan Forero has the story of one family thats been reunited in Buenos Aires.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

JUAN FORERO: Liliana Fontana sang that when youd love song to pass the months in the clandestine torture center dubbed the Athletic Club. Thats where suspected guerrillas in decedents were jailed back in 1977. Investigators today believe that Fontana and her companion, Pedro Sandoval, were tortured. Then they were quote, disappeared, probably sedated and thrown alive from a military flight over the Atlantic. But before Liliana died, she left someone behind a baby boy with big oval eyes. Today, he is Alejandro Sandoval Fontana.

Mr. ALEJANDRO SANDOVAL FONTANA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: He says his life has been good, that hed been raised with love and affection by Victor Rei and Alicia Arteach in a leafy Buenos Aires suburb. Then came the grandmothers. Their organization, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, gets anonymous tips about young people believed to be the children of the disappeared. And then they use investigators and court orders to find the truth. In Alejandros case, they convinced a judge to order a raid to obtain his DNA, and with that they determined he was not Victor Rei's son, but Pedro Lilianas.

Mr. FONTANA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Alejandro had been told he was adopted, but says he never thought to ask about his biological parents or what happened to them. He now says he was torn between loyalty to the couple that had raised him and the truth about his parents fate. But the truth began to gnaw at him; investigators learned that Victor Rei had been a military intelligence officer in the dictatorship. He was charged with kidnapping and last year was convicted, never fully explaining in his trial how Alejandro had wound up in his care. Alan Iud, a lawyer for the grandmothers group, says the Victor Rei case is one of many that shows the theft of babies was systematic.

Mr. ALAN IUD (Lawyer): For me, its impossible to imagine something more evil than this.

FORERO: The grandmothers believe 500 babies were stolen. In recent years, 100 of them, now adults in their 30s, have been found. Among those still searching for her grandchildren is Elsa Sanchez de Oesterhelt, who is 85. Her four young daughters all members of the guerrilla group Montoneros were killed. And two of them, it's now believed, gave birth during their detention.

Ms. SANCHEZ DE OESTERHELT: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: She looks through a picture book (unintelligible) her smiling daughters. Their loss, she says, has left her emotionally mutilated. Whats kept her going is the hope that shell be reunited with her missing grandchildren. But she also says time is running out.

Ms. OESTERHELT: (Through translator) Its like a lottery. I dont know if Im going to live to see the day that they find them, if they find them.

FORERO: Across the city, archeology students are excavating under a highway. The objective is to restore what was once the Athletic Club torture center so Argentines dont forget, says one of the archeologist students, Gaston Durou.

Mr. GASTON DUROU (Archeology Student): (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Durou says 1,500 political prisoners passed through in 1977 with one scrawling - help me, Lord - on a wall thats been recovered. Delia Barrera is among the few survivors and has clear memories of Liliana Fontana and Pedro Sandoval. She remembers how they sang to each other, and how the guards used made them to clean the bathrooms. She also remembers the day Fontana hugged her goodbye, when Barrera was released.

Ms. DELIA BARRERA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Barrera says she could feel the baby Fontana was carrying. Fontana was 20 years old with blonde hair and big oval eyes. And she had no idea what her captors had in store for her. By 1978, she was dead and her baby was in the hands of Victor Rei. Fontanas mother, of course, never knew for sure what happened to her daughter. But Clelia Deharbe de Fontana says she was always certain the baby had survived.

Ms. CLELIA DEHARBE DE FONTANA: (Through translator) I searched and searched. I went everywhere and I asked.

FORERO: Fontana De Deharbe says finding Alejandro has not taken away the pain of losing a daughter.

Ms. FONTANA: (Foreign language spoken)

FORERO: Still, she says, we found him. My daughter would be happy.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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