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Torn between identities in Argentina

Hundreds of kidnapped children must decide if they want to expose their parents' crimes.

Argentina Dirty War, disappeared
Abel Madariaga embraces his son Francisco Madariaga Quintela, Feb. 23, 2010. Francisco's mother was kidnapped in 1977 when she was pregnant with Francisco, who spent 32 years not knowing his real identity. (Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Claudia Poblete Hlaczik wishes she could find a Spanish equivalent for the word “hindsight.”

"It's a good word for me," she said. "Hindsight helps me understand some things about my life."

With hindsight Poblete thinks she knows why she named her first doll Pepe and why she used to check if her parents were still breathing at night.

Poblete gained hindsight 10 years ago, when a judge ordered the then-22-year-old to undergo genetic testing. It was suspected that she had been kidnapped as a baby. Up to that point, she had refused to cooperate with the investigation, but she asked her parents if she should go. They told her it was her choice.

"I went because I really didn't believe it would come to anything," she said. When the judge told her the results, everything changed — even her name and age.

Poblete is one of an estimated 400 babies whose parents were killed during Argentina’s Dirty War and who were raised by those who supported the dictatorship. 

The grandmothers of those stolen grandchildren never stopped looking for them. With the help of prominent American geneticist, Mary-Claire King, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo developed genetic tests to help find their stolen grandchildren. Since 1984, they've recovered 102. They were among the first to use genetics to investigate human rights abuses and have been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, like Poblete, many of those children — now young adults — don't want to be found. So while the grandmothers are celebrated genetic pioneers, their grandchildren have become unwitting moral test cases, caught in a national debate over competing rights, state responsibility, politics and biological identity.

Do the grandmothers' rights to know the truth trump their grandchildren's rights to privacy and self-determination? A controversial Argentine law passed last year sides with the grandmothers: Anyone suspected of being a child of the disappeared can be forced to take a genetic test to determine their identity, even if it's against their will.

Kidnapping children was part of the military dictatorship’s campaign against “undesirables.” Enemies of the regime were systematically detained, tortured and then "disappeared" in clandestine torture centers, like the School of Naval Mechanics in Buenos Aires.

But the school also served as a clandestine maternity ward for the entire country. Inside the institutional dorm rooms, women considered enemies of the state gave birth to children who were then taken from them.

It was the peculiar logic of the dictatorship: They killed a whole generation of young adults, but they didn't kill their children.

"They thought that bad parents led to bad politics," said anthropologist Lindsay Smith, who is writing a book about the disappeared grandchildren called "Subversive Genes.” "They thought by putting them with new families — good Argentine citizens — they could make new citizens."

Meanwhile the relatives left behind had no idea what had happened.

Claudia Poblete, as a baby, with her father and mother.
(Julia Kumari Drapkin/GlobalPost)

"We looked everywhere for them," said Poblete's grandmother, Buscarita Roa. The petite 70-year-old swells with sadness every time she talks about the disappearance of her son Pepe. After losing his legs in an accident, Pepe actively campaigned for the rights of the disabled. But his activism and his politics made him a target. He disappeared along with his wife and their 8-month-old baby girl.

Roa says she saw other mothers in white kerchiefs going round and round the Plaza de Mayo and demanding the return of their families. Among them were women missing grandchildren and together they formed the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo.

"We found out Claudia was still alive, " Roa said her voice cracking as the memory flooded back. The Abuelas received an anonymous tip 22 years after Poblete disappeared. She had been raised by a military colonel and his wife. They called her Mercedes.