By Rodger Cohen, Above
As journalists, we like to think we do some good from time to time. For 20 years, I’ve believed I helped two Argentine children emerge from the savagery of dictatorship, find their true family and secure better lives. Now I wonder. Here’s a story of truth and justice — or neither.
When the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 seized pregnant women, it made a practice of waiting to kill them until their babies were born. The infants were then taken by childless military or police couples while the mothers were “disappeared.”
I was incensed in the aftermath of the dictatorship, finding myself often in rooms filled with the animal sobbing of the bereaved. But there was something about having a young woman give birth, only to slaughter her and steal her child, that took the Argentine state’s depravity — and my anger — to a new level.
It was too early back in the mid-1980s to know the extent of the generals’ crimes: the 30,000 disappeared and corpse-dumping flights out to sea. But new details were emerging. One, a suggestion that twin boys had been abducted from a murdered woman by an Argentine police officer named Samuel Miara, sent me in 1987 to the Paraguayan capital, Asunción.
Miara and his wife, Beatriz, had fled to Gen. Alfredo Stroessner’s little dominion after the Argentine junta fell. Tips questioning the twins’ parenthood had reached the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo human-rights group.
I was in touch with the family of Liliana Ross, a medical student abducted on Dec. 12, 1976, never to be seen again. Liliana had been pregnant and, through an appalled midwife (later murdered), word had reached her husband, Adalberto Rossetti, that twin boys named Gustavo and Martin were born to her on April 22, 1977, in Los Olmos prison, before being taken by the Miaras.
The scene in Asunción is still vivid to me: two blond boys playing soccer, the smell of mowed grass, a big German shepherd barking. And there was Miara, a swarthy man, smoking. Why would he talk to me, for my questions to him were in essence these:
“Are you the guy who’s stolen a couple of children after their mother was killed by the Argentine Army? Are these boys, whom you call Gonzalo and Matías Miara, really Gustavo and Martin Rossetti?”
Yet he invited me in. A troubled conscience can be a journalist’s friend. Miara railed against “leftists” and showed me photographs of his wife in early pregnancy. (But none in late.)
The Wall Street Journal published my story — and things started to move. The Miaras were extradited in 1989. DNA tests proved the children were not theirs. Argentine justice moves slowly, but Samuel Miara was convicted of the boys’ kidnapping in 1991 and again, on appeal, in 1995. He went to jail.
I heard echoes of this. But I’d moved on. Justice delivered, I thought, a good deed done. Until I returned here this week, seeking the 30-year-old twins, and found more acrimony than reconciliation.
The boys were not the children of Rossetti and Ross. DNA tests proved they were born to another “disappeared” student, María Tolosa. She was grabbed with her husband, Juan Reggiardo, in February 1977, and gave birth to twins at Los Olmos prison on May 16, 1977. She and her husband were later murdered.
Rosa Roisinblit, whose own pregnant daughter was abducted in 1978 and killed after giving birth, told me the twins — now called Gonzalo and Matías Reggiardo Tolosa — had sought in vain for a stable home in the 1990s. They clung to Beatriz Miara. A spell with an uncle, Eduardo Tolosa, proved disastrous. They were placed with a “substitute family.”
“These children were booty of war and, somehow, the kidnappers abetted the parents’ murder,” Roisinblit, the vice president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, told me. “Yet the boys clung to the monsters.”
I couldn’t find the twins. One is said to carry a photo of his biological mother, the other to be inseparable from the “mother” who raised him. By all accounts, they never talk to the press. The justice I’d helped deliver had consisted, for them, of one broken home after another.
But they had the truth, or something closer to it than a peaceful Paraguayan yard reeking of repressed crime. We journalists are intruders who move on. Was this intrusion worth it? For the dead, and for Argentina, I say yes. For the twins, I don’t know.
Truth or justice? Every society emerging from terror must choose. But truth is messier, and justice less adequate than we acknowledge. Life resides in half-tones newspapers render with difficulty, rather than in absolutes.
Miara is facing new charges of crimes against humanity in various prison camps. His trial is expected this year. As for the other twins, those born to Liliana Ross, they, like hundreds of other children of the disappeared, have never been found.