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Activist, 86, who’s still fighting for truth visits Cambridge

By Carole Concha Bell

Nora Cortias meets local torture camp survivor
Nora Cortias meets local torture camp survivor

For decades the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo searched for the truth about what happened to their children during General Videla’s cruel regime.

Many people disappeared during his dictatorship in Argentina in the late 70s and early 80s. The mothers, with the support of the now leading international human rights activist Nora Cortiñas, pressed for answers, defying their government, as Nora explained during a visit to Cambridge University on November 1.

The 86-year-old gave a talk, along with economist Beverly Keene, about the mothers and the recent alleged murder of Santiago Maldonado, 27, on Benetton owned land in Patagonia.

During Videla’s regime Nora joined a group of mothers who had met in the waiting rooms of police stations while trying to discover the whereabouts of their children. Here they organised the first of a continuing series of demonstrations in front of the Presidential Palace in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires. Nora lost her son Carlos Gustavo, a university student and member of the Peronist youth movement in 1977. He was taken by the military from the National Institute of statistics and census, Buenos Aires, and disappeared without a trace.

The enormous risks the mothers took was illustrated by the fact that some of them, including Azucena de Villaflor, their first president, were forcibly ‘disappeared’. As they bravely probed for the whereabouts of their children, they highlighted the heinous human rights violations being committed in Argentina, shining a spotlight on the perverse cruelty of the Videla dictatorship.

Nora, one of the founding members of the ‘Mothers’ movement, told the event: “We’ve not had victories, just achievements. Victory would have meant finding our sons and daughters alive. A country cannot be whole without proper human rights and social justice.”

The event was attended by students, staff and members of the public. The visit was of particular significance to Cambridge resident, Lizzy Vargas, who has lived in the city since 1978 after surviving Argentina’s brutal concentration camps in which she was held for two years until she was finally expelled from the country to be reunited with her husband and two children.

Lizzy said: “I was imprisoned. My family and I had been abducted by the military police in Argentina. Eventually my husband, who is Chilean, and I were sent to prison. My husband was expelled and came to England with my two little boys but I was detained longer because I am Argentinian and they couldn’t expel me. I stayed in prison for a further year and a half while my family was waiting in Cambridge. There were no charges brought against me.

“The military could hold you in prison for as long as they liked. In the end I was granted leave and I was able to join my family in 1978.”

On meeting Nora she added: “Today was extremely emotional because she was talking about a time that I lived through. I am lucky to have survived and to be alive and to have my family. It’s so awful to have someone disappear, I can’t imagine what it must be like to have one of your children just vanish and to never find out who is responsible. I have enormous admiration for the work she has done. Nora symbolises a period that was tragic but she, and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo have the spirit of overcoming, doing something about the ills that surround us. It was a privilege to hear her speak.’

Now an internationally renowned human rights activist, Nora is a social psychologist and recipient of several honorary doctorates including from the National University of Salta and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She holds a chair at the Economics Department in the University of Buenos Aires where she teaches on the relationship between economic power and human rights.

The event was organised by the Argentina Solidarity Campaign and was supported by the Cambridge department of Latin American Studies.


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