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Argentina: “some atrocities are too awful to contemplate”

29-02-2008 Feature

Bárbara Noailles is a doctor. She was just seven years old when her father, a mechanic, was abducted from his workshop in Buenos Aires in October 1976 and “disappeared”.

My father disappeared on 15 October 1976. He was a member of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP). One day, in a simultaneous operation, they came looking for him at work and at my grandmother's house. There are still so many things that I don't know about what happened, and so much that I don't remember. But my father disappeared when I was seven years old; that much I can say for sure.

One of my grandmother’s neighbours called the police because she saw armed men going into the house. It took five hours for the police to come. But as it was, my dad was in the workshop and they took him away in a lorry, along with a friend, a sculptor, whose studio was in the same building. That's something we found out afterwards from the friend, who was freed the next day.

They took my dad away on a Friday. Later that day, someone called the house to say that he had been abducted. I was told that he had gone on holiday. I don’t remember them telling me that, but I do have a memory of a conversation I had with my mother, because I had realised that something was wrong.

I was in my fifth year at university; I was 22 and studying psychiatry. This meant that I had to make several visits to Borda hospital, a big neuropsychiatry hospital in Buenos Aires.

  The first time I went there, I found it difficult to breathe. The second time, I interviewed a schizophrenic patient who said that he was in there because someone had intercepted a "subversive" letter. He was delirious but convinced that schizophrenia wasn’t the real reason he had been committed to hospital.  

  I left that day having realized what was causing the tight feeling in my chest.  

  What if torture had driven my father mad and now he doesn't know who he is? He could be here. Rationally I knew that couldn't be true, but there was no body, there was no point at which you could say "until such-and-such a moment he was breathing; now he isn’t."  

  Obviously, that moment took place, but the only people who knew about it were his kidnappers, his torturers, the person who threw him out of a plane. I don’t know how his life ended. And I don't know if I want to know, I don't know if I am interested in the details. It doesn't change what happened to me. Though sometimes I think that imagining all the terrible possibilities is far worse than the reality of just one.    


I don’t remember how long after his disappearance we had that talk; it could have been three days, one month, three months, I don’t know. It must have been more than three days though. I confronted my mother and said, “If Dad is on holiday, why doesn’t he call me, or write to me?”

She replied, “Well, your dad isn’t really on holiday, he’s in prison”. Of course, as an adult, she understood what a political prisoner was, but I was only seven. I used to watch the Ame rican TV series “Chips” and as far as I was concerned, only bad people went to prison and my father wasn’t bad.

One week after my father disappeared, his second wife, mother of my only brother, went into exile and took her son with her. He was three years old. So it was a double loss for me, because although I didn’t live with him, we used to spend the weekends together.

I didn’t see my brother again until 1984, because my father had had sole custody and he was not officially dead, so his mother could not get custody. They left the country using forged papers and were not able to return until democracy was restored.

I know, because I saw it later, that my grandmother filed a writ of habeas corpus for my dad in February 1977. She says that she delayed doing so because at the time people thought that it put the missing person at greater risk.

It’s very difficult to say when I actually realized that my father was one of the disappeared. I remember that from the age of seven up to around ten or eleven years old, I used to say that my father lived in Costa Rica or in Bolivia, which were the countries where my brother had gone into exile with his mother. I could not accept that he was in prison, so I said that he was living abroad with my brother.

The first time I told someone that my dad had disappeared was in the second year of secondary school, in 1983. A classmate had brought in a newspaper which had published a list of the disappeared. The newspaper got passed around and obviously the first thing I did was look for my dad’s name. And it was on the list.

It was as though I had kept quiet all those years and I just couldn’t take it any longer. At that stage, though, I only told my best friend, no one else. It took several years for me to be able to openly admit that my d ad was missing…until I was 18 or 19 I think.

A lot changed when I became involved with the association HIJOS, which my brother had joined after he returned to Argentina. I started going along to meetings in 1996 or 1997 and it did me a lot of good. It sounds crazy, but I felt as though I was the only one around who had lost their father. Although I knew that there had to be lots of people in the same situation, meeting them and sharing my experiences with them made all the difference. But even so, everyone has their own story to tell – my brother for example, with the same father who had disappeared, had had a different experience: he went into exile and his mother was an activist. He says that he was three or four years old when his mother told him, " Your father is dead " .

My mother, on the other hand, wasn’t an activist, and she never told me, “Your father is dead”. When the dictatorship ended and Raúl Alfonsín's government took over, I kept hoping that they would find concentration camps where people were still alive, however much my head was telling me that it wouldn’t happen. I was only 14 at the time, but still, I don't think I was the only one; many adults were also clinging to the same hope, the feeling that these people had to be somewhere. Some atrocities are just too awful to contemplate.

As I was a little girl when my father disappeared, I didn’t think, “Well, as all of this is going on in the country, he's probably been killed”. It was only as time went on that I started to realize he was never coming back.

Then it’s another big step from “he’s never coming back” to “he's dead " ...

I don’t know when I finally began to believe that my father was dead. Because my father is dead and they murdered him, he didn't have a heart attack crossing the street. It wasn’t as if my mother got pregnant, had me and shortly afterwards he went out to buy cigarettes and never came back. That’s not a missing person. This is Argentina and a missing person is one of the disappeared.