More than 34 years after losing them in the vortex of a military dictatorship during which thousands were kidnapped and “vanished,” Oesterheld said she is resigned to dying without knowing exactly what happened to them.
And like many other Argentine women with similar losses — women now in their 80s and 90s — Oesterheld holds few illusions about ever being united with her missing grandchildren. She believes two of her daughters gave birth in secret detention centers shortly before being executed by intelligence agents.
“I do not expect to live long,” Oesterheld said. “I think my days are numbered. I don’t think I will last 100 years — don’t even think about it. I could die at any moment.”
It is a somber, matter-of-fact lament that is increasingly heard among a group of grandmothers who for 36 years have searched for grandchildren who are now approaching middle age, unaware that their biological parents were tortured and killed by a military junta.
The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group created in 1976 as an improvised response to the state-sponsored thefts of babies, has recovered 105 of 500 babies born to political prisoners in a seven-year dictatorship that ended in 1983. The group’s relentless work, which included helping create a national DNA database to match stolen babies with their biological families, has won accolades the world over.
But with about 400 grandchildren still missing — now adults, mostly 35 and 36 years old — it is clear that time is running out, at least for the grandmothers.
“I, sir, am 92 — what do you think of that?” said one of the most active grandmothers, Rosa Tarlovsky de Roisinblit, taking a break at the group’s musty central offices. “If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t be here, that’s for sure. I am here every day. But not everyone can be here.”
The group’s offices, with its creaky wooden floors and stacks of archives, remain the center of feverish activity. The leader is Estela Barnes de Carlotto, who defies her 81 years by keeping a busy schedule of meetings with government leaders and appearances on human rights panels in foreign capitals.
But these days, a typical day means that only three or four grandmothers make it to work. The group’s robust operations instead fall to a team of lawyers, psychologists and clerks who were toddlers during the dictatorship.
“The day there are no more grandmothers, these young people will keep working, keep searching,” said Roisinblit, the group’s vice president. “We are preparing them for that.”
With increasing frequency, the group’s Web site reveals the deaths of leading grandmothers. In April, it was Irma Ramacciotti de Molina. Last month, Nelida Gomez de Navajas died, the group announced, “with sadness because she is one more of us who leaves without recovering her grandson.”