Global Politics

Argentina tests stolen children

The stolen children of Argentina's 'disappeared' are now being forced to learn who they really are through DNA testing. Reporter Julia Kumari Drapkin profiles the case of one woman who initiated the DNA drive about 10 years ago.

Player utilities

Claudia Poblete Hadzic wishes she could find a Spanish equivalent for the word �hindsight.�

�It's a good word for me,� she said. �Hindsight helps me understand some things about my life.�

Poblete said with hindsight, she thinks she knows why she named her first doll Pepe and why she used to pretend an office chair was her wheelchair.

Poblete gained that hindsight in a court room 10 years ago, when a judge ordered the then 22-year-old to submit to a genetic test to determine her true identity.

Up to that point she had refused to cooperate with the investigation. She asked the only parents she'd ever known what to do. They told her it was her choice whether to go the hospital for the test.

�I went because I really didn't believe it would come to anything,� she said.

When the judge announced the test results, everything changed � her name, her age, her family.

�The family that I knew had disappeared,� Poblete said. �The other family I distrusted because I didn't know them and they belonged to a part of the world that for me was completely unknown. I felt very alone.�

Poblete is not alone. She is one of hundreds of young adults who were stolen as infants. They're the children of political prisoners who were �disappeared� during Argentina's Dirty War in the 1970s.

The grandmothers of those stolen grandchildren never stopped looking for them. The grandchildren are adults now, and some are being forced to learn who they really are.

�It's an incredibly difficult and painful situation that these young adults are put into,� said anthropologist Lindsay Smith. She is writing a book about these stolen children and their struggles with being identified.

She says the grandmothers of these children pioneered the use of DNA testing to help find and identify them.

�It's an important legacy to honor, but with it, comes profound moral and ethical dilemmas that are different than the kind we face around DNA data banking for criminal purposes,� said Smith.

A key question is, do the grandmothers' rights to know the truth trump their grandchildren's rights to privacy? A controversial Argentine law passed last year sides with the grandmothers. The law stipulates that anyone suspected of being a child of the disappeared can be forced to take a genetic test to determine their identity, even if it's against their will.

�On a gut level, it feels wrong that someone can tell you who your family,� said Smith, �but you have to understand this debate within the larger history of the repression.�

You can see some of that history in the Navy Mechanics' School in Buenos Aires. It is now a memorial with tour guides, but in the 1970s, the school was a notorious detention center. Those deemed politically suspect were detained, tortured, and often killed there.

The school also served as a clandestine maternity ward for pregnant prisoners. Once the babies were born, the dictatorship took them and gave them away to political supporters.

It was the peculiar logic of the dictatorship: They killed a whole generation of young adults, but they didn't kill their children.

Smith said, �They thought by putting them with new families, good Argentine citizens, they could make new citizens.�

Meanwhile, the families of the children had no idea what happened to them, or their missing parents. Burcarito Roa's son, Pepe disappeared in November 1978. He was a wheelchair-bound activist for the disabled. When Pepe disappeared, his wife and 8-month-old baby daughter, Claudia, were taken as well.

�We looked everywhere for them,� Roa said.

Roa said she joined the mothers in white kerchiefs going round and round the Plaza de Mayo, demanding to know what happened to their missing children.

Roa became a founding member of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, the grandmothers who were also missing grandchildren. Then ten years ago, an anonymous tipster came to the Abuelas with new information about Claudia's disappearance.

�We found out Claudia was still alive,� Roa said, her voice cracking. She learned that her granddaughter had been raised by a military colonel and his wife, who called her Mercedes.

Roa and her family started the process to prove Claudia's identity, but Claudia resisted. Roa credits the judge in the case, Gabriel Cavallo, for ordering Claudia to take the DNA test. �He was a very good judge.�

Judge Cavallo himself said it was a difficult case. Cavallo is now retired, but he said he'll never forget the look on Claudia's face when he told her the results of the test.

�I spent two years in therapy talking it out, to make sure I had done the right thing,� he said.

Claudia Poblete's case proved to be a landmark in Argentina's reconciliation process. Judges here can act as investigators, and in the course of investigating Claudia's disappearance, Judge Cavallo ruled that amnesty laws protecting those who helped the military dictatorship were unconstitutional. That ruling paved the way for prosecutions of crimes committed during Argentina's Dirty War.

According to Claudia Poblete, prosecution is the reason some stolen grandchildren resist being identified. When she ultimately agreed to get tested, the results became evidence against the couple who raised her.

�If you love the people who are going to go to jail because of you, it's impossible to make the choice,� she said.

Claudia's adopted father was sent to prison and her adopted mother was held under house arrest.

�I was crying all the time,� she said. �The world as I had known it stopped existing. I had to start building a new one.�

It has taken Poblete some years to reconcile her identity issues. She has decided that experience matters more than genetics.

�Who I am is everything that has happened to me,� she said. �It's the 21 years that I've lived as Mercedes and the 10 years I've been living as Claudia. And the eight months that I had with my parents after I was born.�

It is not always easy, but Claudia now enjoys relationships with both her biological family and the one that appropriated her.

�Nobody can tell you who to love,� Poblete said.

She looked down at her eight-month-old daughter, the same age that she was when she was taken.

I asked Claudia when she's going to tell her daughter about her past. Claudia said as soon as she can understand, but she added that her daughter will always kind of know.

�Photos of my parents are everywhere,� she said, opening up an album. There are old Polaroids of Claudia as a baby, her father Peep in a wheelchair, and her grandmother, Buscarita Roa.

There's also a photo of Claudia's mother. Guadalupe looks just like the grandmother she will never know.

Claudia says despite all the pain, uncovering her past has been all for the best. �An uncle used to say to me, �The truth is sad, but it has no remedy.�

Comments