We speak with Manuel Gonçalves, a "nieto recuperado," or a "recovered grandchild," in Argentina. He is one of the thousands of children born to parents who were disappeared during the dictatorship. These children were born in captivity, then kidnapped by the military and given away to government supporters or military families. Some of them have found their way back to their families. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on the road in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Argentina is still dealing with the dark legacy of its bloody military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. On Monday, one of the symbols of the dictatorship, Emilio Massera, died at the age of 85. He was a leader of the military junta and the former head of the country’s most notorious political prison, known as ESMA, where thousands of people were tortured and killed.
The seven-year period came to be known as Argentina’s "Dirty War" — a reign of terror by a military junta that’s been blamed for an estimated 30,000 deaths and disappearances and the persecution of tens of thousands more. Students, labor leaders, dissidents, peasants and human rights activists were hunted down. They were imprisoned. They were disappeared. They were killed. They were tortured. Many of the disappeared were thrown from airplanes into the ocean while still alive; others were killed and buried in mass graves.
Well, my next guest is called a "nieto recuperado," or a "recovered grandchild," here in Argentina. He’s one of thousands of children who were born to parents who had been disappeared during the dictatorship. These children were born in captivity, then kidnapped by the military and given away to government supporters or military families.
Manuel Gonçalves is the son of Gaston Gonçalves, who was killed during the dictatorship. His mother was also killed. Former police officer and leader of the conservative Federalist Union Party, Luis Patti, is currently on trial for the torture and murder of a number of people, including Manuel’s father. Manuel Gonçalves joins me now.
We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Manuel. Manuel is being translated by Andrés Thomas Conteris with Democracy Now! in Spanish, which we’re also celebrating the fifth anniversary of our headlines being translated into Spanish.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Manuel.
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, I should say, the music you just heard by Los Pericos, one of the band members is Manuel’s brother, who is named after his father Gaston, Gaston Gonçalves, who was killed during the dictatorship.
Tell us your story, Manuel. What do you understand, where your mother was when you were born?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] My story begins on the very day that the dictatorship began in 1976, because that’s the day that my father was kidnapped. My mother, at that time, was pregnant with me. And for security reasons, she left Buenos Aires to save her own life. She went to San Nicolás, a city that is two hours away from Buenos Aires. There, she was joined with another family, who had two kids who were ages three and five, who came from another province. We were there for several months, and I was there with my mother until I was five months old. But I don’t know exactly where I was born, because my mother was in a clandestine detention center at that time. 19 November of 1976, several different branches of the military and police came to our home, and they raided it and arrested people. The consequence of that attack is that all of them were killed, including the two children. And I am the only survivor.
AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to you?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] I was left in a hospital there in San Nicolás, because I had breathing problems. I was dying, really, and there were not many options. They saved my life in that hospital. But at the time, the judge in charge of minors put me under custody for several months. So the idea was to put me under custody to protect me from those who wanted to capture me. So then I was given, in a very irregular situation, under adoption to another family, and there I lost my identity.
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s who you grew up with?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] Yes, I grew up with that family, and I continue to be in contact with them, because they are not responsible, per se, as to what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: So, when did you — did you know you were adopted from the beginning?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: But you didn’t know the circumstances. You didn’t know that you were born in captivity.
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] No, I did not know the circumstances.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you find out?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] In reality, they found me. I did not discover my own identity myself. When I was 19 years old, it was an ordinary day, and a man came to the door, and he asked to come in. And for me, he looked like a very suspicious man. A few minutes later, I wanted him to leave, because he knew more about myself than I knew. The first thing he told me is that "Your biological family is looking for you." And the second thing he told me is that "Your mother and your father are disappeared." That made sense to me, because the first thing I imagined was to have a mother and a father like a normal family. And he told me that my grandmother was one of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo who had been looking for me for 19 years.
AMY GOODMAN: And just to clarify, the grandmothers, the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo are the women, the mothers and grandmothers, of those who have been disappeared, and they organized and marched in the Plaza de Mayo every single week, holding the pictures of their children and their grandchildren. So your grandmother — how did she know? How did she come to recognize who you were and where you were?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] Well, really, an infinity of things happened. Many of them were fortunate in order for her to reach me. The grandmothers, first during the period of the dictatorship and then later in the civilian rule, began to put together a large database. And one of the cases spoke of an operation in San Nicolás where there was one survivor. So they investigated that case, and they found some clues. And one of the pieces of evidence was a photograph of my mother. When they discovered through this photo that that woman was my mother, then they had evidence that I was that child.
AMY GOODMAN: Your brother was also looking for you, Gaston Gonçalves. Los Pericos is a famous Argentine band. He’s one of the band members. He’s a few years older than you.
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] Yes. He is seven years older than I, and he has a different mother than I do. And his history is that he remained with his mother, and I did not. So he did not lose his identity. He did know that he had a disappeared younger brother.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell me about the day that you reunited with your brother and with your grandmother.
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] The first person I recognized or that I met up with was my grandmother. And I went with this man who had come to my house, who was a forensic anthropologist. And we arrived to the home of my grandmother, and we were at the doorbell. And that’s a moment that I will never forget, because I was awaiting the opening of the elevator door, because I knew my grandmother would come out of it.
So the door opened, and there was a typical grandmother. But I knew that she would not live long enough in order for me to give thanks for everything she had done for me. We embraced one another, and she asked me if I was doing well. And she invited me to eat, as grandmothers often do, and she fed me a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Your father’s killer, Patti, who is a conservative politician, very well-known policeman in Argentina, is on trial right now for killing your father and others. Are you going to the trial?
MANUEL GONÇALVES: [translated] Yes. Six years ago, I’m the one who began this case, which has now moved to trial. In the middle of the six-year period, my grandmother died, but she was able to give testimony before a judge. So, that judicial proceeding is moving forward, and Patti has been in prison for the last three years.
So, one of the efforts that this man did, Patti, was to try to become an elected member of Congress so that he would then have protection under the law and some sort of immunity so that they could not legally proceed against him. So we were able to get all of the political forces to gather, except the political party that Patti belongs to. They all joined together so that he could not enjoy this kind of protection. This is a very important proceeding, because it set a precedent, for those who are accused of crimes against humanity as civilians could not enjoy immunity protection.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Manuel, I want to thank you very much for being with us. And people can go to our website at democracynow.org to see the images of Manuel’s family. His father, again, though, disappeared. His mother — both his mother and father killed. His father’s killer on trial now. Because of Manuel and others, he was not able to kill with impunity. Thank you, Manuel Gonçalves.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re broadcasting from Buenos Aires. When we come back, a young woman who, when she was 16, was tortured. And she took her torturers to court. They were convicted last year, the day before Christmas, and they were all sentenced to 20 years in prison. We’ll hear her story.