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How the children of Argentina’s ‘disappeared’ are being reunited with their birth families

During Argentina's military dictatorship, as many as 30,000 people simply “disappeared,” including some young, pregnant women, whose babies were then given to couples deemed sympathetic to the regime. What happened to those children, who are now adults? Retro Report, distributed by The New York Times, offers a look at efforts by desperate grandparents to find their family members.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    During the military dictatorship in Argentina, from 1976 to 1983, as many as 30,000 people simply disappeared. Some of those were young pregnant women. An estimated 500 of their babies were then given to couples who were often deemed sympathetic to the regime.

    What happened to those women and their babies is explored by the documentary project Retro Report and distributed by The New York Times. We're partnering with them to bring you a version of this piece here.

  • MAN:

    A three-man military junta has taken over the government of Argentina.

  • NARRATOR:

    The coup began in the early morning hours of March 24, 1976.

  • MAN:

    The action was swift and efficient, and the new ruling junta composed of coup leaders seemed in firm control.

  • NARRATOR:

    It wasn't long before the military dictatorship started rounding up guerrilla groups and those believed to be left-wing subversives.

    Housewife and school principal Estela de Carlotto was 47 years old back in November of 1977 when her 22-year-old daughter, Laura, disappeared.

    ESTELA DE CARLOTTO, Mother of "Disappeared Child" (through interpreter): She was the first of my four children. Laura was a very respectful girl, but with a strong personality. She became politically active because she wanted change.

  • NARRATOR:

    Carlotto says she was frantic to find out what had had happened to her daughter.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    At that time I was the same as other mothers, very naive. We didn't know that the military were coming to kill people. We were expecting the return of our children.

  • NARRATOR:

    But it wasn't to be. Carlotto would never hear from her daughter Laura again.

  • In August of 1978, she was killed by her captors. Although devastated, Estela de Carlotto was one of the more fortunate ones. She was given her daughter’s body to bury. It was two years later that she learned something she had suspected:

    Laura had been pregnant and given birth to a son before she was murdered.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    I buried Laura. I knew where Laura was. But I didn't know where my grandson was.

  • NARRATOR:

    Not long after, she joined the grandmothers, or abuelas, of the Plaza de Mayo.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    Being on my own was dangerous. I couldn't share my sorrow. So, to find the grandmothers was to find company, to exchange ideas and to look after one another.

  • NARRATOR:

    The dictatorship lasted seven years. During that time, as many as 30,000 people were tortured and killed at detention camps all over the country. Many of the victims were buried in mass graves.

    After the regime fell, the grandmothers were desperate to not only find out what had happened to their children, but to also recover their grandchildren, who had been stolen at birth.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    In the beginning, we were searching, but we didn't have a way to prove which were our grandchildren.

  • NARRATOR:

    So they turned to science. And, in 1987, they began storing their profiles in a newly created national genetic bank. By May of 2014, Estela de Carlotto and the grandmothers had found or identified 113 missing grandchildren.

    And, at the age of 83, her determination seemed stronger than ever.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    I will never stop doing what I do, because there is inside a very powerful strength that is love, love for our children and grandchildren.

  • IGNACIO HURBAN, Adoptee (through interpreter):

    I first heard of grandmothers and of Estela de Carlotto when I graduated from secondary school and went to study in a music conservatory.

  • NARRATOR:

    Ignacio Hurban was born in June of 1978, at the height of the dictatorship. His parents were farmers near the city Olavarria, some 220 miles from Buenos Aires. On his 36th birthday in 2014, Ignacio found out that he had been adopted.

  • IGNACIO HURBAN (through interpreter):

    It was a shock, yes. The parents who raised me didn't tell me. When I asked them, they confirmed what I had been told.

  • NARRATOR:

    Not long after his discovery, Ignacio went to the grandmothers, who arranged for a blood test. In August of 2014, just days after taking the test, Ignacio got the results from the head of the commission.

  • IGNACIO HURBAN (through interpreter):

    She told me whose grandchild I was and that my grandmother was waiting for me, very excited. We met immediately, the next day.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    Given his good nature and nice character, he said, in jest, of course, "If I'm a grandson of the grandmothers, I hope Estela is my grandmother." He seemed to have sensed it.

  • NARRATOR:

    Yuki Goni is an author and journalist.

  • YUKI GONI, Journalist:

    The country came together, I think, in this huge cry of joy. I went to the press conference where she appeared publicly with him for the first time, and there's a room packed full of journalists all in tears, myself included, because she represented so much for us.

    I mean, she had been so brave. She had put so much of herself at stake. And, finally, she had her reward.

  • NARRATOR:

    But it also meant something else: Her grandson's adoptive parents would face a legal investigation.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    The people who raised my grandson committed a crime. It's a serious crime, a crime against humanity. There are extenuating circumstances, in that they were farm people under a very domineering master, who one day brought them a child and told them, do not ask questions and never tell him he is not your own son.

    I personally do not blame them or exonerate them. That is in the hands of the justice system.

  • NARRATOR:

    Ignacio Hurban is now Ignacio Montoya Carlotto. Although he has changed his name, he says his bond with the parents who raised him remains strong, and he is proud to be the 114th grandchild identified.

    At the age of 84, Estela de Carlotto shows no sign of slowing down, taking her message and now her grandson around the world.

  • IGNACIO HURBAN (through interpreter):

    There is my public life with my grandmother and my private and emotional life with her, a life we're building. In that sense, it's just a grandchild and a grandmother.

  • ESTELA DE CARLOTTO (through interpreter):

    When I met my grandson, I could hug him. He doesn't look like his mother, but I knew that in his blood was my daughter Laura. And it was like I got her back.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You can watch the full documentary by Retro Report, "The Disappeared," on The New York Times Web site. That's nytimes.com.

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