MOTHER OF THE DISAPPEARED
Born Hebe Maria Pastor into a working class family in the small coastal town of Ensenada, close to the city of La Plata, in Argentina. Her nickname was ‘Kika’. Her father Francisco was a hat-maker. Her mother was Josefa Bogetti.
She was too poor to finish primary school as her family could not afford the bus ticket to get her to school.
Instead, she was taught sewing and dancing. She contributed to the family’s meagre income by sewing sweaters and ponchos for a women’s co-operative. She was a severe asthmatic (and in later life suffered from diabetes). Nevertheless, she said she had, “a joyful childhood where you learned to enjoy the little things.”
In 1949, Hebe married Humberto Bonafini. She was just 14. She became a housewife.
They had three children, two sons Jorge and Raul, and a daughter, Alejandra.
The family lived a quiet life until March 1976. Then there was a military coup in Argentina and the democratically elected government of Isabel Peron was overthrown.
In February 1977, her son Jorge, who was 26 and a Professor of Mathematics (and a member of the Communist Party) was seized by the security forces. He had seen a few nights previously, from his flat, a group of young boys being beaten up by the police and had made a formal complaint. Neighbours said the police broke into his flat, beat him up and led him away hooded. He was ‘disappeared’. Hebe immediately began searching for him.
“I changed as a person they told me and we couldn’t find Jorge. My house was transformed into something else.”
She searched for him in hospitals, police stations and prisons, the courts and psychiatric hospitals. The police told her to go away, the priests told her to pray. She never learned what had happened to her son.
In April of that year, Hebe joined a few other women who were protesting at the seizure of their loved ones by the authorities. The government claimed the captured were ‘subversives’ and Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ had begun.
Hebe and the other women would march around the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. It was in front of the presidential palace, the ‘Casa Rosada’. They marched silently, in circles, every Thursday.
They formed ‘The Association of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo’, which colloquially was known as ‘The Mothers of the Disappeared’. Hebe was at the forefront of this group which started with 12 members. Azucena Villaflor was the founder
In December of 1977, 5 of these mothers were arrested and they too ‘disappeared’ (Azucena being one of them). The families of the remaining Mothers urged them to give up their protest. Hebe said, “When those mothers were taken, many of our families told us: ‘Stop, you’ll all be killed. You’ll never reappear.” But she swore she would carry on, “because fear is a prison -but we never thought of giving up.”
The arrest and disappearance of these mothers proved to be a ‘shooting in the foot’ moment for the military junta. It brought both national and international attention to the cause. Thousands of people started to attend the weekly protests, all in front of the world’s media.
But the regime still got their revenge on Hebe. That same month her second son Raul was ‘disappeared’. He was a zoology student and a member of the Communist Party. She never heard of him again.
And in 1978, Jorge’s wife, Maria Elena Bugnone Cepeda, was kidnapped and vanished. Her crime was the same as Jorge’s and Raul’s – being a left-wing academic.
The military tried to intimidate the Mothers. Armed guards dressed entirely in black surrounded the marches, often pointing their weapons at the ladies.
She organised the ‘March of Resistance’ down the Avenida de Mayo on the 10th of December 1982, the first time the protestors had ever left the Plaza de Mayo. It drew massive crowds and embarrassed the Junta, who were unable to respond.
Hebe also lost her husband Humberto, in 1982. He died never knowing what had happened to their sons. He was just 57 years old.
In 1983, after the fiasco of the Falklands War, the military junta collapsed. Democracy (of a sort) was restored to Argentina.
Nevertheless, the Mothers of the Disappeared continued their weekly protest – determined to carry on until each one of their missing children was accounted for. Their slogan was “Aparicion con vida (make them appear alive).”
She said the Mothers of the Disappeared were, “their voice, their gaze, their heart, their breath.”
By now the women all wore white headscarves not only to signify peace but to ensure they stood out and could be seen by the media covering the event (in case they were attacked). By now Hebe was president of the organisation.
If anything, Hebe became more outspoken once democracy was restored to Argentina. She was increasingly controversial.
The new President of Argentina was Raoul Alfonsin. He was very cautious in his prosecutions of the guilty men. Only 9 men were put on trial and 5 of them were acquitted.
This led to a split within the Mothers of the Disappeared. One group wanted to work with President Alfonsin, the other (led by Hebe) wanted to continue their protests. Hebe said “They were alive when they were taken. We want them back alive.”
There were about 2,000 mothers in each group.
But in the 1990s, the next Argentinian President, Carlos Menem, decided to pardon all military commanders and other torturers and murderers responsible for the ‘Dirty War’.
Hebe just stepped up her campaign, making life difficult for Menem at every possible opportunity.
In 1999 she won the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education.
She was very outspoken and courted controversy. In 2001, after the 9/11 atrocity in the USA, she claimed she welcomed the attacks, saying it was good for the United States to experience some of the pain it had inflicted on other countries. She hoped this was the end of capitalism. This stance lost her quite a bit of support.
It also led to a major clash with journalist Horacio Verbitsky. As he was Jewish, she was accused of being antisemitic, something she stringently denied.
But there was an unexpected backlash. She started to be threatened with messages saying they would “hit her where it hurts.” The police refused to investigate.
One night her daughter Alejando (now aged 35), answered the door at her house. She was hit over the head by armed, masked men who beat her repeatedly with clubs and put a plastic bag over her head. They were about to rape her when they were disturbed – and fled. Hebe said, “It is clear that those who did this are the same ones who took my other children, and who enjoy impunity.”
She went on to say, “Apart from the Security forces, we have no other enemies.”
In 2003, Argentina elected Nestor Kirchner as President, their first left-wing leader for many years. He immediately repealed all of the pardons, and the criminals found themselves back in court, accounting for their crimes.
The first person the new President Kirchner invited to the Casa Rosada (presidential palace), after his inauguration was Hebe.
Hebe (who was a left-winger anyway), gave Nestor her full support. “The enemy isn’t in the government anymore.” She went on to support Nestor’s successor, his wife (and ultimately widow), Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. She became a close friend and advisor to both of them.
They gave her organisation a lot of funding. She appointed the Schoklender Brothers to work for her. Pablo was a lawyer, Sergio a financial expert. As left-wingers, in 1981 they had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for the murder of their parents (who had actually been killed by the security forces). The Kirchner regime set them free at Hebe’s request. Both of the Schoklender boys considered Hebe their surrogate mother.
The Mothers of the Disappeared had their own radio station and a university was founded in their name, as so many of the ‘disappeared’ were students.
They also led a housing project, moving poverty-stricken families from slums in Buenos Aires and 6 other cities. It is estimated they rehoused 5,600 families. It was called Suenos Camparditos (Shared Dreams).
In 2006 the Mothers abandoned their weekly marches in the Plaza.
But in 2011, there was a major scandal. Journalists investigated the finances of the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ and discovered her financier Sergio Schoklender had been laundering money and was involved in a massive fraud, using government money. In his trial she was summoned as a witness. She said Sergio and his brother Paulo, “worked hard”, but that she felt, “betrayed and let down.”
In his defence Sergio said Hebe was well aware what was going on and that she had, “a lazy memory.”
The case was dismissed due to lack of evidence but shortly afterwards it was reopened and Sergio, Paulo and Hebe were arrested. They were bailed,but her assets were seized. Investigations were still going on at her death, 11 years later. Hebe always claimed her innocence.
Nevertheless, the government took over the running of ‘Shared Dreams’. She promptly called the Argentinian Congress “nothing but a nest of rats and vipers.”
She still continued to shock people when she said Pope Francis, the first Argentinian Pope, should, “Burn in Hell”, because he hadn’t denounced the Junta when he was a bishop. She had already stated on of his predecessors, Pope John Paul 2nd would go to hell.
Nevertheless, she was a constant critic of repressive regimes around the world. She was a constant advocate of non-violent resistance. She spoke throughout Argentina and in the rest of the world. She claimed Che Guevara was her hero.
She loved Cristina Kirchner, who returned to front line politics as Vice-President, but told President Alberto Fernandez to, “speak as little as possible because when you do it is a disappointment.”
And she enjoyed publicity, meeting human rights supporting celebrities such as Sting, U2, Yves Montand and Catherine Deneuve, as well as left-wing politicians like Fidel Castro of Cuba and the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez.
When former President Carlos Menem died in February 2021, Hebe said on television, “I truly do not mourn his death, nor do I wish him to rest in peace.”
She was the main guest at the Kirchner Cultural Centre where an exhibition was held about her – ‘From Youth to Militancy.’ She reflected, “I could not imagine that the dictatorship was so murderous, perverse and criminal.”
Immediately after the exhibition she was taken ill and admitted to the Italian Hospital in La Plata where she died a week later.
It is testament to her fame that the whole country knew her merely as ‘Hebe’. She had won over 150 international prizes for her work and was nominated three times, unsuccessfully, for the Nobel Peace Prize.
When she died, President Alberto Fernandez made an announcement. “The Argentinian Government and people recognise in Hebe de Bonafini, an international symbol of the search for memory, truth and justice for the 30,000 ‘disappeared’. As founder of the ‘Mothers of Plaza de Mayo’, she shed light in the middle of the dark night of the military dictatorship and paved the way for the recovery of democracy for 40 years.”
He declared three days of national mourning.
Her friend Cristina Kirchner said she was, “a world symbol of the struggle for human rights, the pride of Argentina.”
Her daughter Alejandra is her sole survivor.
RIP – Representing Incarcerated Prisoners