28 Mar La Marcha por Verdad y Justicia
24 March is a big day in the national calendar. It’s the day the dictatorship or Dirty War started in 1976. It lasted 7 years and cost more than anyone here could count; most indelibly fixed in the minds of the Argentinian people, it cost the lives of 30,000 desaparecidos – the ‘disappeared’, a staggering statistic of staggering brutality. So, each year 24 March is marked by thousands gathering in the streets lest the rulers forget how much suffering paved the way to democracy here. Starting from Congreso (parliament) and ending at the Plaza de Mayo, along one of the city’s handsome broad avenues, they march from the political heart to the emotional heart of the country.
I was lucky twice over: that I happened to be in Buenos Aires on this day; and that I was able to join the march along with Natasha’s friends, Alice and Adriano. A perfect team: Adriano, Argentinian, a ‘porteno’, so from this city, able to guide and enlighten on the history, the politics and the emotion; Alice and Natasha able to add, interpret and nuance for my British ears and eyes.
Nothing is straightforward here, at least not when it comes to politics and political protest. I’m not even sure that this was protest although it felt like it because of the extraordinary blend of unity and division. For a start, two marches take place. The first, the one we joined, is broadly pro-government, with the emphasis firmly on the word ‘broadly’. For plenty do not sympathise with the government’s stance on many issues and criticise the corruption that has blossomed under the cloak of populism. The second march, broadly ‘anti-government’, takes place later in the day, and makes for the same destination, the two converging at the Plaza de Mayo for a test of restraint, nerves, or maybe just muscle. Exactly what anti-government means in terms of a political spectrum of, say, right and left, is anyone’s guess. There are anarchists, communists, radicals of all sorts of persuasions; a fragmented mix of opinion and disagreement.
Trying to tussle with the intricacies of the Argentinian political scene or imagining I could make sense of it is way beyond wishful thinking. What I saw as I walked with the marchers and spent an hour or more at the edge of the Plaza de Mayo and watched was colourful, noisy, exuberant, a little chaotic, passionate, joyful – all these descriptions apply but hardly do justice to the display of banner-waving, t-shirted marchers, shouting, singing, dancing, drums beating, hands clapping, feet stamping, filling the street with sound and colour. Riveting and energising, it felt like the old days when we protested about stuff in the UK, when there were things that mattered enough to get us onto the streets (although we wouldn’t have been this noisy!) before we got comfortable and accepted nuclear weapons, inequality and war. Oops, sorry getting a little narky there!
I was thrilled by the spectacle, but I wasn’t moved until one particular moment. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the mothers of the disappeared, arrived in slow procession, wearing their distinctive white headscarves. I was confused about the ‘madres’ as it’s the ‘abuelas’, the grandmothers that have been exported into our psyches. Alice enlightened us. They are all ‘madres’ whose children were taken; but the ‘abuelas’ had grandchildren, the children of their disappeared daughters (maybe sons too?), who were taken and given away. The abuelas are searching for their grandchildren; the madres are searching for justice and accountability.
The abuelas arrived first, walking slowly to sustained, almost reverential applause. Then the madres, a much bigger group, holding aloft photos of their lost children. One woman in particular caught my eye. She carried two photos, her two children both taken in 1977. I identified with her firstly as a mother, trying to grasp the unthinkable, the loss of your child. But then it dawned on me in one of those strange moments of realisation or recognition, that her lost children were my contemporaries. All these desaparecidos were my peers, born in the 50s, disappeared when they were in their 20s, wrenched from friends, family and future. A strange moment to contemplate fate, fortune, serendipity, whatever it’s called – the accidents of birth, the luck or not to be born here or there, there or here.