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Argentina’s Disappeared


 
Northern Argentina’s secret Detention Centers
for the Disappeared (indicated in yellow)
Editor: “Desaparecidos” is the Spanish word for “The Disappeared.” For thousands of Argentine families, this word has become a symbol of a long harrowing nightmare.
 
In a coup on March 24, 1976, a military junta seized power in Argentina and went on a campaign to wipe out left-wing terrorism with terror far worse than the one they were combating. Between 1976 and 1983, under military rule, about 30,000 people, most of them dissidents and innocent civilians — including priests, religious and children — unconnected with terrorism, were arrested and then vanished without a trace.
 
In 1983, after democracy was restored, a national commission was appointed to investigate the fate of the disappeared. Its report revealed the systematic abductions of men, women and children, the existence of about 340 well organized secret detention centers, and the methodic use of torture and murder. According to former president, Carlos Menem, records of the atrocities were destroyed by the military, following the 1982 Falklands War. The disappeared have not been heard of to this day.
 
The website, “The Vanished Gallery” is a humble attempt to bring the voices of the “desaparecidos” and their loved ones to the world. Human Rights organizations estimate that about 30,000 people disappeared during those years. The vanishing was swift, a burst into a home at night, a few minutes and they were gone – not enough time to be heard. We owe it to them. The following is just one story of this ongoing tragedy, attested to by Fr. Norman Butler, M.S., Regional Superior of the La Salette Missionaries in the Region of Argentina/Bolivia and Fr. Alfredo Velarde, M.S., a native Argentine who now serves in Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de Perpetuo Socorro, Las Termas de Rio Hondo, Santiago del Estero, Argentina. 

 
Icon of “Our Lady of the
Disappeared” (copyright © Trinity
Bookstores, used with permission)
The following is just one story of how our La Salette Missionaries in Argentina are bringing the opportunity for healing and reconciliation to those whom they serve.
 
Pablo Daniel Ortmann was murdered thirty-one years ago and given Christian burial on October 10, 2007. Since he was the uncle of La Salette Missionary, Pedro Battistini, I participated in the burial and now tell Pablo Daniel's story.
 
Since Pablo participated in union activities, he was kidnapped by Argentina's military regime in June of 1976. He was thirty-six years old. His family, parishioners of Our Lady of La Salette Parish in Cordoba, Argentina, never heard another word from him. Some survivors of the military brutality said they had seen Pablo Daniel in one of the prisons, but no more was known.
 
There were three activities on the morning of Pablo's burial: one in the courtroom, another in the morgue, the third in the cemetery. All three were moving. Family members who had thought their grieving had finished years ago found themselves burying their brother all these years later. Four of Pablo's sisters were present, one of them his twin, another the mother of Fr. Pedro Battistini, M.S.
 

 
Woman sitting in front of a large wall
with pictures of “The Disappeared”
Some forty people gathered in the courtroom to hear the reading of the death certificate. About half of those present were relatives of the deceased, the other half from human rights groups and representatives of the “Association of Relatives of the Vanished Ones”. The death certificate was several pages long. In formal language it described how a clandestine, common grave had been discovered in the city cemetery a few years ago, thanks to the testimony of cemetery workers who had been called in to work at night and bury unidentified corpses in July of 1976. 
 
Once discovered, anthropologists were called in to do a very careful digging at the grave, gathering as much information as possible about the remains found. DNA tests proved in 99.999993% (so read the document) that one skull was that of Pablo Daniel Ortmann. The skull had a bullet hole in the crown of the head. The death certificate went on to explain that a military report claimed Pablo had been killed in a shootout between military forces and “subversive rebels”. Yet there were witnesses to testify that Pablo was already in military custody in one of many clandestine prisons, and could not have participated in the shootout as the military report claimed. 
 
That was the end of the reading of the death certificate, positively identifying the deceased. No one was named as responsible for his death. The judge offered her condolences to the family members and signed the papers authorizing the next step: receiving the remains at the morgue.
 
Empty poor-man coffins were stacked high as we followed our guide to the place set up for the morning's simple ceremony at the morgue. At one end of a long table draped in black, there was a varnished box, about a foot and a half square. At the other end of the table, literally on display, the skull of Pablo Daniel Ortmann. No other bones had been identified. We could see the bullet hole at the very top of the skull. 
 

 
(l to r) Fr. Alfredo Vellarde, M.S.
and Fr. Norman Butler, M.S.
The wall behind the table had floor-to-ceiling cardboard boxes, all marked with numbers, all containing yet
unidentified bones from the clandestine grave of St. Vincent Cemetery. It was a reverent moment. Pablo's youngest sister lovingly ran her hand over the skull as one might do to the deceased at a wake. After a short time, the skull was placed in the varnished box. One of the sisters carried the box to our van. On the ride to the cemetery, three of the sisters sat in a row, each taking a turn to hold the treasure.
 
A kind of pantheon has been built in the cemetery right over the place where the clandestine grave was found. The pantheon is meant to be a place of burial for those who disappeared and have been later identified. The prayers here were led by Fr. Alfredo Velarde, M.S., himself a survivor of a military kidnapping and torture. 
 
One of Pablo's sisters, a woman of great faith, said to me after the ceremony that she doesn't know how to forgive those responsible for her brother's death, but she prays for that grace. Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord…. May he rest in peace.
 
 
This stylized La Salette Crucifix with the hammer
and pincers is painted by Fr. Alfredo Velarde, M.S.
 

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Our Community: The Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette are deeply rooted in the Apparition of Our Lady of La Salette which occurred near the hamlet of La Salette in southeastern France on Sept. 19, 1846. The Missionaries were founded in 1852 by Bp. Philbert de Bruillard, Bishop of Grenoble, France, and presently serve in some 25 countries.

Our Province: The Province of Mary, Mother of the Americas, was founded in 2000AD and is one of several provinces in the congregation. The members of this Province serve mainly in the countries of Canada, the United States and the Region of Argentina/Bolivia.

Our Mission: Our La Salette ministry of reconciliation responds to the broad vision given by Mary at La Salette as well as in response to the needs of the Church. As reconcilers, we together with the laity take seriously Mary’s mandate: “You will make (Mary’s) message known to all (her) people.”

 

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