Every week Nora Cortiñas and her fellow Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo gathered outside the presidential palace, shaming the military dictatorship over the fate of their missing children She greets you within the grandeur of London University’s Senate House: 87 years old, tiny, but with the power to unsettle one of the most brutal military dictatorships the world has ever seen.Nora Cortiñas still carries round her neck the laminated photo of her long-lost son, Carlos Gustavo Cortiñas, printed with the date he disappeared – 15 April 1977 – and her boy’s age when he was taken: 24.She still insists on wearing the white headscarf that came to symbolise the defiance of Argentina’s Madres de Plaza de Mayo(Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo), through four long decades of demanding “memory, truth and justice” for their children.Every week they stood opposite the presidential palace in the main square of Buenos Aires, demanding to know what the Junta had done to their sons and daughters, an unyielding rebuke to a dictatorship that thought state terror would stifle the merest whisper of dissent.READ MOREArgentine man snatched from mother at birth meets her 38 years onThese mothers of the disappeared became an inspiration first to the rest of Latin America, then to the world.Nora is about to be interviewed by the London correspondent of one of Argentina’s leading newspapers. Then she will – as she sees it - incur the displeasure of some in President Mauricio Macri’s right-leaning government by criticising him during a talk to the UK’s Argentina Solidarity Campaign.If today she is feted as a global hero of the human rights movement, it is a role she never sought; it was thrust upon her in the most brutal way imaginable.
Forty years ago, Nora was a “traditional” Buenos Aires housewife, working from home as a dressmaker and teaching young girls to sew.
Then on a cold morning in April 1977, Gustavo said goodbye to his wife Ana and his two-year-old toddler Damian, set off for work, and was never seen by friends or family again.
“We never knew, we still don’t know to this day, exactly what happened to Gustavo,” says Nora. “We don’t know who kidnapped him. We don’t know where they took him. We don’t know how or when he was killed, or anything. Nada.”
After 40 years, Nora Cortiñas still does not know what happened to her 24-year-old son (Tom Goulding)
Gustavo had become one of the desaparecidos: the “disappeared.” By the time Argentina’s military dictatorship ended in 1983, the disappeared would number some 30,000.
The senior officers, who came to power in a military coup on 24 March 1976, had directed every branch of the state apparatus to root out “subversives”. Cruising the streets in dark green Ford Falcons, the death squads of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (the AAA), would seize people and take them to secret detention centres, never to be seen again.
The forced disappearance tactic was likened to the ‘Night and Fog’ Decree issued by Adolf Hitler, to ensure that dissidents were not publicly executed, but instead made to vanish without trace.
The Nazis thought this would strike the maximum fear into anyone else contemplating dissent. The Argentine generals seemed to have the same idea. Six months after their coup, the disappearances were by some estimates running at an average rate of 30 a day.
Nora says Gustavo had never been violent – he was no longer even politically active by then. Instead, he was halfway through his university economics course and also working at the Ministry of Economy.
But years earlier, Gustavo had tried to improve the lot of the poor in the Villa 31 shanty town of Buenos Aires, working alongside Carlos Mugica, the Roman Catholic priest murdered by the AAA in May 1974.
He had once also been a supporter of the leftist Monteneros group – albeit without participating in its guerrilla activities. For a regime picking up people simply for being listed in an activist’s address book, this was more than enough.
Gustavo was seized at the train station on his morning commute, as Nora and her family realised when the military came looking for Ana.
“They interrogated her,” says Nora, “And every time Ana answered a question, the military would say ‘Yes, that coincides’, clearly indicating that Gustavo had been questioned.”
Mercifully, perhaps, they never took Ana or Damian.
Among the many horrors of what the Junta liked to call “The National Reorganisation Process”, the most shocking of all was how female detainees were robbed of their young children.
Days-old infants were taken from mothers. Women arrested while pregnant could find themselves giving birth blindfolded and tied by their hands and feet.
Then the baby they were never allowed to see would be taken and given to a “politically acceptable” couple, the better to prevent the rise of a new generation of “subversives”. The birth mother would nearly always be killed.
About 500 babies and infants were stolen by the dictatorship. Some were raised by the very men who had participated in the torture and murder of their parents, often never realising what their much-loved “father” had done, sometimes discovering only decades later.
“We never imagined that the repression could go to the lengths it did,” says Nora. “You can’t begin to imagine that you will never see your son or daughter again. So at the time of their kidnapping and even years later, we continued to look for our children alive.”