April 30, 1997

Argentine Mothers mark 20 years fighting injustice

By Stephen Brown

BUENOS AIRES - Argentina's Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Wednesday mark the anniversary of their campaign against the injustice of the military's brutal Dirty War, just as determined as when they first tied on their trademark white headscarves 20 years ago.

They first met in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo April 30, 1977, in silent protest at the disappearance of their sons and daughters -- some of the tens of thousands abducted, tortured and killed by the military in their brutal war on leftist guerrillas and anyone vaguely suspected of sympathizing.

Under the slogan ``20 Years, Not One Step Back'' they are staging anniversary events to show that until they are given their loved ones' bones to bury, the Mothers will carry on marching round the Plaza every Thursday afternoon.

Over the years their saintly maternal image has taken on a hard, radical edge.

President Carlos Menem, butt of some of their most bitter recriminations for signing a pardon for ``Dirty War'' criminals in 1989, accused them after their recent presence in a violent student protest of ``showing solidarity that justifies the type of violence we Argentines have already lived through.''

And while there will be prizes Wednesday for respectable sympathizers such as Danielle Mitterrand, Catholic clergy and theater stars, the Mothers' sympathies have become more radical as the years pass.

Hebe de Bonafini, the combative 68-year-old leader of the larger and more radical group, recently led a failed mission to mediate in the Lima hostage crisis. Her sympathies were clearly with the Marxist MRTA rebels, not their 72 hostages.

A bespectacled housewife with two sons among the ghostly ranks of the ``disappeared,'' known simply as Hebe to millions of Argentines, she is not shy about her sympathies with the MRTA, Mexico's Zapatista rebels or any other radical group.

``Our children live on in every one who fights: with the Zapatistas, the Colombians, Paraguayan peasants and maybe now the MRTA,'' she told Reuters one recent Thursday in the Plaza.

Nor does she shy from comparing Menem with ex-dictator Jorge Videla, blaming his neoliberal reforms for unemployment and poverty which she argues is a violation of human rights.

``Through the years we have grown and we now know human rights are violated whenever a man has no job,'' she said.

Bonafini relishes the controversy and says she is looking forward to her upcoming trial for allegedly slandering army chief Gen. Martin Balza by calling him ``murderer.''

Many Argentines question the Mothers' espousal of social protests that apparently have little to do with human rights.

But few doubt their courage for raising a lone voice of protest back in 1977 -- courage which cost their founder Azucena Villaflor and many other early Mothers their lives.

Marcela Bordenave, member of Congress for the opposition Frepaso, wants April 30 named ``Day of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo'' in homage to ``those who decided to cast light in the darkness and break the silence to find out what happened to their children and grandchildren.''