A cold September breeze kissed my cheeks and I shivered while standing in front of Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace of Argentina. It was a Thursday afternoon in 2006. A study exchange programme had brought me here, at the heart of Buenos Aires, one of the birthplaces of Latin America’s human rights movement. In about fifteen minutes, the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, would start their march, just right across the balcony where Evita Peron sang, ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.’
I was not particularly drawn to this iconic building by the history of Evita. Someone had told me the walls were coated once with white paint mixed with cow’s blood. I gazed at the pink walls as another wind whipped and tugged at my jeans. My feet were turning into popsicles inside my sneakers. I wriggled my toes to feel them. The soles of my shoes left track marks on the reddish earth. Was the land soaked with blood too? The hair on my skin stood on end.
‘¡Querida, Mia!’ my host mum, Maria Adela Antokoletz, called. ‘¿Estas bien?’ She worried about how I was coping with jet lag after a 30-hour flight from Manila. I rubbed my hands together and blew on them. ‘Tengo frio’ I replied. ‘Que pobrecita, mi niña,’ she said, embracing me as we joined the group of women unfurling the white banner bearing the organisation’s name: Madres de Plaza de Mayo Linea Fundadora.
Along with Maria Adela, about 60 yrs old at that time, women with gray, untamed hair peeking out of white bandanas knotted under their chins, began making rounds of the plaza. Maria Adela had a brother who’d disappeared during the dictatorship period of 1976 to 1983, also known as the Dirty War. Her mother was one of the founders of the group, who started the weekly march in 1977 to demand the return of their sons, daughters, and husbands. The demonstration had never stopped since then, as the successive generations took their place.
My host mum seldom talked about her brother. Nonetheless, he’d suffered the same fate as the 30,000 people arrested, tortured, or worse, killed by the military government. Most of them were trade union and student activists. Komunistas, in the eyes of the junta. Subversives. A threat to the state’s stability that must be purged. They are now known as desaparecidos or the disappeared.
About 5,000 of them disappeared behind the bleached walls of Escuela de Mecanica dela Armada or ESMA at Avenida del Libertador. Maria Adela and I visited the former navy school on a crisp morning in late September. I was already halfway through my month-long exchange program. Black iron gates guarded the estate like the hound of Hades. While waiting for our guide, I peered through the bars. Soft light draped the square facade. During the Dirty War, hardly anyone knew that its basement housed prisoners forced to manufacture news, forge documents or create film propaganda. Our tour guide called the room el sótano (the basement).
The hollow echo of our footsteps in the empty hall probably stirred unsettled souls. As the guide pointed at where desks and chairs used to be, I thought I heard typewriters dinging and papers shuffling. Every evening, at around five, he said, officers rounded up about 20 prisoners, put a hood over their heads and pushed them into a van. They were eventually sedated, tied in chains, put on a helicopter and then dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. They called it ‘death flights.’
On the third floor was a room called capucha where prisoners were kept hooded and chained in tiny cells. Some women prisoners who gave birth here had their babies taken away and given to families of officers. They were the disappeared children of Argentina. I could not fathom how the 150 survivors of ESMA managed to overcome the horrors of this dark, dank chamber. I imagined hearing the prisoners crying and yanking at their metal chains. Barely ten minutes in there, and claustrophobia already had me choking and clawing for sunlight and air.
On my last week in Argentina, I stood at Avenida de Plaza de Mayo, breathing in the cool October air. Pamphlets swirled in the gust that blew. I caught one of them and read: ‘¡Aparición con vida ya de Julio López!’ The page flashed a face of the old man said to be the first disappeared since the country regained democracy in the mid-80s. He was a key witness to the trial of Miguel Echecolatz, the former Commissioner General of Police responsible for the disappearance of high school students in the province of La Plata in 1976. Around me, people gathered to march again towards Casa Rosada and demand Julio’s return. Drums pounded. My heart raced. If something happened, Maria Adela said I must make my way to the Cabildo, the old Spanish town hall on the left side of the plaza. She would meet me there. I ran her instructions in my mind over and over. I had promised my mama I would stay safe and come home.
‘¡Ahora, ahora!’ the people started chanting. ¡Resulta indispensable! ¡Aparición con vida y castigo a los culpables!’ Maria Adela and I fell in step with the rhythmic marching of the crowd. We looked ahead towards the blood-coloured palace. And, along with everybody else, we cried, ‘Nunca mas!’
BIO: Mia Corazon Aureus says: Originally, from Manila, Philippines, I had worked as a poverty and human rights researcher for various non-government organizations, which allowed me to travel and see not only the beautiful sceneries of countries but also the wounds and scars of their people. In 2009, I shifted to doing corporate writing, and, in 2014, I moved to Singapore where I am now based and working as a commodities reporter for S&P Global Platts. I am also currently finishing my MA in Creative Writing at Lasalle College of the Arts.