It began 40 years ago on an autumn day — on 30 April 1977 — when 14 mothers gathered in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, in the city's central square. They were seeking an audience with the military authorities.
They wanted to ask the whereabouts of their abducted children. 'Where are our children?' was a question that metamorphosed into a brave act of political resistance and defiance against the brutal 1976–1983 Argentinean military dictatorship.
In Plaza de Mayo, right in front of Argentina's pink government house, the mothers waited and waited for an answer, until the police forced them to move away.
'Circulate,' the threatening, baton-wielding police shouted at them. And so they did. They moved. And then, they marched slowly counter-clockwise in a line, two abreast around the Plaza's white obelisk, built to mark the first anniversary Argentina's independence from Spain in 1816. They have been performing this act of defiance since then, every Thursday at 3:30pm.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, one of the most potent movements of resistance against tyranny, was born that day. They began wearing white headscarves with their children's names embroidered on them, and carrying huge hand-made placards with the smiling faces of their missing children. Others hang small photographs around their necks.
In a speech, Hebe de Bonafini, a historical leader of the Mothers, once said: 'Our missing children gave us birth.' When a shroud of silence wrapped the frightened Argentinean society, these brave women raised their voices. They became — as Argentinean philosopher Rubén Dri put it — 'a sign of life in the face of the project of death carried out by the dictatorship'. And it was indeed a terrifying project of death. It is estimated that 30,000 were killed or went 'missing'. Few bodies were ever found.
While the military repression was massive and generalised, young people became the preferred targets. They became enemies of the state. Many years ago an Argentinian journalist sent shivers down my spine when he told me the military effectively 'annihilated a whole a generation of young Argentineans'.
While the military machinery of death was in full operation, one by one new Mothers joined the movement until it became a single unified voice with a single demand: 'They were taken alive, alive we want them returned.'
"Three of the Mothers were abducted, tortured and thrown alive into the Atlantic sea on one of the dictatorship's infamous 'death flights' — the practice of drugging opponents and dropping them alive from aircraft."
And in a symbolic act, described by the Mothers as 'socialisation of maternity', the placards with the photos of their smiling missing children were swapped between them. 'We don't fight for our own children, it is a collective struggle for those 30,000 who disappeared, they are all our children,' they declared. They constructed themselves as the mothers of all those who disappeared.
They were mainly working class women. One of them was Azucena Villaflor. She was one of the founders of the movement. She was the one who suggested Plaza de Mayo be the public canvas for their act of resistance. One of Villaflor's sons, Néstor, had been abducted together with his wife Raquel Mangin.
At the end of 1977 she, along with two other Mothers, Esther Ballestrino and María Ponce del Bianco, became victims of the dictatorship. They were abducted, tortured and thrown alive into the Atlantic sea on one of the dictatorship's infamous 'death flights' — the practice of drugging opponents and dropping them alive from aircraft. The body of Villaflor washed up on a beach in 2015. Her ashes were buried at the foot of the Plaza de Mayo obelisk. The bodies of the two other mothers were never found.
Many of the young Argentineans abducted were pregnant women. Some were executed with their children inside their wombs. Many others were perversely spared until they gave birth; then the mothers were killed and the newborns became war booty. They were given away. Many ended up in the hands of military officers. It is estimated that 500 children were kidnapped or born in detention.
The search for the stolen children has been a painful and slow mission for the Mothers and for the 'sister organisation' called the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. Last 26 April, just four days before the commemoration of the Mothers' four decades of struggle, child '122' was found and identified. He was a boy. He was born inside the walls of the ESMA — La Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada or the Higher School of Mechanics of the Navy — a horrifying den of imprisonment, torture and death used by the military.
The end of the military regime and the punishment of those behind these crimes have been the greatest achievements of their struggle; a struggle that has still not ended. Elderly and frail, many nonagenarian and wheelchair bound, they keep on marching every Thursday at 3:30pm. They demand the government of right wing Mauricio Macri open 'all the archives of the dictatorship'. This is a fundamental demand in a time when Argentina's historical memory is — as the Mothers said during last 30 April's commemoration — 'under threat'. The mothers have never forgotten their lost children or grandchildren.
Antonio Castillo is a Latin American journalist and Director of the Centre for Communication, Politics and Culture, CPC, RMIT University, Melbourne-Australia.