My Sister Was Disappeared 43 Years AgoBreaking News
tags: Argentina, Dirty War, political violence, authoritarianism
The report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team included 20 photos of my half sister’s bones—nearly as many photos as I had ever seen of Isabel herself.
The ones of the bones punctured by bullets—her rib, her pelvis, her humerus—did not move me as much as those of her skull. It was so old-looking, like one of those prehistoric craniums of Homo sapiens, the nose bashed in, some of the teeth missing, that earthen coloring. The skull had lain in a common grave, untouched for more than 30 years, before being taken to a lab, where it remained officially unidentified for about another 10. The sight of it destroyed me. In all the photos I had seen, Isabel looked incredibly young, with a cherubic beauty—round cheeks, light hair, searching blue eyes. She had been murdered and disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina in January 1978, when she was just 22. Staring at those photos of her skeleton in March 2018, I was eight years older than she ever had been. Never before had I quite grasped how much time she hadn’t gotten to live, to age and grow old, until I saw her bones, and realized they had been aging without the rest of her.
One photo showed a bullet that had remained lodged in her skeleton the whole while. The sight would have been a comfort to many because, along with the bullet holes in her bones, it suggested that Isabel had been killed in a gunfight, not imprisoned and tortured, as most of the regime’s victims were.
I was the recipient of the report because, despite being born in New York 10 years after Isabel was killed, I was the legally designated recipient of her remains. The anthropology team had tried to reach my father and my half-brother, Enrique, around 2012, as part of its project of identifying the disappeared victims of Argentina’s so-called Dirty War—the period from 1976 to 1983 in which the U.S.-backed military dictatorship kidnapped and killed tens of thousands of supposed dissidents in the name of fighting off communism. But the team’s letters to my family went unanswered. There were valid explanations, including the vagaries of international mail, address changes, and so on. I had little doubt, though, about the main reason there was no response. My father, in particular, had long ago chosen to leave this part of the past buried.
Growing up, I almost never heard mention of Isabel. At most, she was a kind of ghost hovering in the background. A single black-and-white photo of her hung over my father’s bed, highly pixelated because it was a blowup of the yearbook photo he kept in his wallet after he moved to the U.S. For a long time I didn’t know who it was, but even as a child, I was aware that I shouldn’t ask.
Here we must pull back the curtain, listen to what’s behind the silence. First, the cultural reasons: Although Argentina’s military dictatorship technically lasted only seven years, from 1976 to 1983, they were the bloodiest in the nation’s history, and few except the junta leaders themselves were put in prison. For years, people continued to encounter their former torturers at bus stations, their rapists in cafés. For years, the armed forces maintained power at a distance, with complete immunity. For years, there were no formal funerals for the disappeared. And for years, those who had resisted, almost all of whom were eradicated, were viewed with suspicion and blame, and those who had kept quiet, passively acceding to the junta, continued to keep quiet. There is a reason my Argentine friend was squeamish at the thought of what happened in the ESMA and didn’t want to see it.
My family’s reasons for silence overlap with their country’s, of course. They felt shame about Isabel taking up arms against the regime—many said they wished she had used peaceful methods instead, as if that would have saved her from getting killed. Most of them had abandoned their roots and the settings of their memories, and those who hadn’t still carried their own entangled traumas that they did not wish to relive, another lost relative or their own experience in a torture center or recollection of waking up in the middle of the night as a kid with a machine gun pointed in their face.
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