The fight continues for 86-year-old mother of Dirty War
On Thursday following Argentina’s national Flag Day, shortly after four, the plaza was quiet and the air was brisk. Few people wandered around the statues of Argentine heroes, including Manuel Belgrano and Jose de San Martín, walking their dogs and tossing bird feeder into the air for the pigeons to peck. Golden brown autumn leaves lie on the ground, blown by the wind that gently brings to life the national flag nearby.
“Madres de La Plaza de Mayo,” reads a long white banner that two men begin unraveling and then hang at the bottom of the Liberty Column. The banner also has an image of a headscarf painted with the sky-blue tone of the Argentine flag. These symbols line the walkway, circling the statues, next to footsteps that are engraved into the brick ground which mark the exact steps that the mothers have made for so long.
“40 Today the Fight Continues,” reads another banner, bright with colorful flags waving over a vast green field. The banner stretches nearly the width of the plaza, hanging between three trees.
Not yet wearing her white headscarf, one of the remaining “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” in Rosario, Norma Vermeulen, appeared alone in the corner of the plaza, not calling attention to herself, but rather fulfilling a personal duty she has held onto for so long.
Vermeulen, who is 86 years old now and walks with a cane clenched in her right hand, still makes it out to the plaza to march as much as she can. The white headscarf loosely laced on the back of her head symbolizes a diaper of a child who was taken by the military dictatorship. The back reads “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo Rosario,” and was originally worn so that people, including journalists, would start recognizing the mothers and informing themselves about those who disappeared during the seventies and eighties.
This particular Thursday served not only as an opportunity to recognize the mothers marching in the plaza, demanding answers about the past, but also for participants to express their displeasure towards President Mauricio Macri. Macri took office in December 2015 and made an appearance at the Flag Monument on National Flag Day, which motivated outbreaks of violence by opponents of Macri’s “Cambiemos”—“Let’s change” political coalition.
Large Perón posters made it clear on this day that those who attended stood not only by the mothers, but also against the radical group that overthrew their “Peronist” government, kidnapped their sons and daughters, and began what’s widely known as the “Dirty War.”
As a place for defending one’s beliefs, this landmark serves well—from the Liberty Column that symbolizes the defense of Buenos Aires against the Spanish on May 25, 1810, to the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” marches that occur today.
“La Plaza de Las Madres is a place of resistance and we’re going to continue resisting as long as we’re alive. When we die, our children and grandchildren will march,” Vermeulen said.
Some supporters are drinking yerba mate and others are holding flags above their heads as they make several rounds around the Liberty Column. The anger surrounding the president along with the celebrations that come with a community bound by mutual support makes for a mixed tone.
Soon enough, the plaza is engulfed with people. Age doesn’t matter during the march because age was never a factor to begin with. María, the daughter of Juan Domingo Salomon Donati, who was kidnapped at 33 years old, talks about her lost father while passing out fliers to educate people and tell of the impact this loss has had on her life.
“Madres de la Plaza” chants begin to ring throughout the plaza as Eduardo, one of Vermeulen’s friends who often accompanies her to the plaza, passes her the microphone.
“We’re getting back what we lost,” Vermeulen says to the men, women and children engulfing the plaza. Her eyes glisten as if trying to hold back tears of gratitude, while in an amplified, soft and crackly voice, she says, “Many thanks. You all are so loving.”
An audience erupting with chants and applause begs the question: What led to such immense support for the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” in the first place and how, after 31 years of marching, is Vermeulen still compelled to make it to the plaza each week? Upon entering the plaza on any given Thursday at 5 p.m., these questions may come up to those unfamiliar with these mothers’ stories.
“Where’s your son?” the police asked upon forcefully entering Norma Vermeulen’s house.
These words unsettled Vermeulen, who remembers ironing clothes that day—April 1, 1977. The police proceeded to ransack her house, stealing and destroying her personal items. They left with her 23-year-old son, Osvaldo Mario, who was never seen again.
This story, like many others beginning between 1977 and 1983, is left without a resolution. The “desaparecidos”—translated as “disappeared ones”—are estimated to be 30,000 by Amnesty International and Argentine human rights organizations. Labor workers and students may have originally been targeted but the kidnappings went beyond them, to their friends and family members—anyone who was suspected of having ideals subversive to those of the military dictatorship. They were taken to clandestine detention centers and tortured. On various occasions, the military personnel injected them with sedatives, which they claimed were routine vaccinations necessary for their transfer to a new detention center farther south, and threw their unconscious bodies from an aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean.
These death flights were a way of disposing bodies in a manner the military members deemed inconspicuous. The whereabouts of Osvaldo Mario still remain unknown, almost 40 years later.
In the Plaza 25 de Mayo, Vermeulen isn’t the only one with a story like this to tell, and she’s not quite the last “Madre de la Plaza de Mayo” in Rosario either. Her companion, a hunched-over 91-year-old woman named Elsa Massa, nicknamed Chiche—“Toy”—marches alongside her while the other two remaining Rosario mothers are living in rest homes.
“It’s a wound that can never be healed,” Massa said in a video interview with Panóptico Rosario about the disappearance of her son, Ricardo Alberto on August 26, 1977.
As they march the plaza together, it’s obvious they enjoy each other’s company. They walk slowly, smiling and talking, tracing the same steps as the footprints engraved into the ground, passing by a framed picture taken more than 10 years ago showing the two of them marching the plaza. Norma points at it and then Elsa looks and smiles.
Today, these are the only two mothers who march on Thursdays, but the amount of sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, and other family members who are still trying to recover from the actions of the military dictatorship 40 years ago is unimaginable.
With the hope of continuing the fight for answers after she and the remaining mothers are gone, Norma Vermeulen says she doesn’t want to leave people with any special legacy about what they’ve done. The “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” along with the sons and daughters of parents who disappeared, instead wish to instill in others these two words: “Nunca más,” — “never again.”