She’s now 87, frail and a little hard of hearing. But after all these years, Elsa Sanchez de Oesterheld still has vivid memories of the husband and four daughters she had in the 1970s.
“I had a spectacular family,” she said, sitting on her living room couch, surrounded by photographs. “My life was wonderful, and we were all very close. And then they took it all away, all of it.”
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.”
“So the group we started was once bigger; now we are fewer all the time,” Roisinblit said. “And the truth is that some have died, others are sick and cannot come, and some have given up. They say, ‘If I have not found anything yet, I certainly won’t now.’ ”
The irony is that the group’s ranks are thinning just as its work is culminating in one of its greatest accomplishments — a trial of military figures, including the dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone, accused of having systematically orchestrated the thefts of babies.
In the late 1990s, the group began intensifying pressure on authorities, propelling prosecutors to take the case to trial. Now, after 15 months of testimony, the proceedings are days away from coming to a close.
“This was something they always talked about and worked for,” said Alejandro Sandoval, 34, one of the grandchildren the group helped recover. “To see this trial going on is really fantastic, and it is due to the patience and the will that the grandmothers had to get to the truth.”
Still, the group’s leadership says there is much left to unravel about the dictatorship, which zealously wiped out dissent by killing thousands of union members, leftist activists and insurgents from the Montoneros group. Many were simply “disappeared” after being kidnapped and tortured — either drugged and tossed from airplanes over the Atlantic or buried in unmarked graves.
Women close to term gave birth in detention centers, with the newborns left at orphanages or illegally adopted by military officers, in some cases the same henchmen involved in killing the mothers.
In Roisinblit’s case, her daughter, Patricia, was snatched by state agents Oct. 6, 1978, when she was eight months pregnant. Her body was never found, but Roisinblit learned from other political prisoners that Patricia gave birth at the notorious Naval Mechanics School.
Then, more than 12 years ago, an anonymous caller phoned the Grandmothers’ offices to inform that Roisinblit’s grandson was alive. DNA testing established that the young man, who was 21 at the time, was her grandson. An investigation determined that he had been illegally adopted by an air force official.
“He is a grown man now, married, with two children, and I’m a great-grandmother,” said Roisinblit, explaining how she felt “privileged” to have found him.
Many others have not been so fortunate.
In the late 1970s, Oesterheld’s daughters joined the militant leftists. Her husband, Hector Oesterheld, a cartoonist famous for his science fiction strips, did, too.
And then, one by one, the military picked them off.
The two eldest daughters, Estela and Diana, already had toddlers, both of whom were taken in by relatives after the mothers were kidnapped.
But Diana and the youngest, Marina, were pregnant, and Oesterheld believes they gave birth before being killed.
“We assume that they are alive, because, in general, they didn’t kill the babies,” Oesterheld said, referring to her missing grandchildren.
She said, though, that she leaves the search for those grandchildren to Estela and Diana’s sons, Martin Mortola Oesterheld and Fernando Araldi Oesterheld.
“What those boys tell me is they will never stop looking,” Oesterheld said.