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Giving voice to the Dirty War's missing victims

'Poesia Diaria' is a collection of poems and tributes by loved ones of Argentina's disappeared dissidents.

December 29, 2007|Bill Cormier | Associated Press

BUENOS AIRES -- Thousands of dissidents silenced under Argentina's military dictatorship -- tortured, executed and made to "disappear" in the so-called Dirty War against dissent -- are gaining new voice through poetry.

A new book, "Poesia Diaria" (Everyday Poetry), tells the victims' story through the memories and verse of families who lost sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives. It comes as Argentines reexamine their country's dark past and push for trials of those who committed human rights abuses during the 1976-83 junta.

For years, newspapers in this South American nation have published small notices, called recordatorios in Spanish, on the anniversaries of disappearances: poems and messages to the dead that Virginia Giannoni, the book's editor, said chilled her to the bone.

"To find such intimate letters published in a public space is so jarring," Giannoni said. "Many of these are beautiful texts that give voice to deep feelings. They express a need not only to remember family members, friends and colleagues who have been made to 'disappear' but to bear witness to their lives."

Giannoni first created a traveling wall of "death tributes" that toured San Diego; Toronto; Medellin, Colombia; and other cities. She then collected in "Poesia Diaria" about 200 of the more than 1,500 poems that had been published in newspapers.

Most are just a few lines saved from yellowed newsprint and old photocopies. Some recall the victims as children or moments together. Others retell their kidnappings or express longing to be reunited.

Still other tributes express anger at the junta, such as one penned by the parents of Juan Jacinto Burgos, who was kidnapped in 1976: "Trapped and murdered . . . your voice silenced / Murdered in a cowardly fashion while held captive somewhere / We will never forget your martyred body / We will never forgive the atrocious crimes of the military dictatorship."

"Assassin are you still free?" wonders the family of Fernando Brodsky, who disappeared inside a torture center. "Is your conscience still in need of relief?"

Nearly 13,000 people are officially listed as dead or missing from the Dirty War, though human rights groups put the toll at nearly 30,000 victims.

Despite renewed prosecutions under President Nestor Kirchner that have led to a handful of convictions, the Dirty War era and the unknown fates of thousands remain open wounds.

"I always think about my sister, always, always," said Cristina Diturbide, who says her younger sister Marta was abducted Nov. 22, 1976, and who visited a recent "Poesia Diaria" exhibition.

"It's a wound that will never close," Diturbide said. "I now have my own home, my work, my children, but her absence is very real."

The book aims to voice that grief and help heal those wounds, said Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla, winner of two Academy Awards for best original score for music he wrote for "Brokeback Mountain" and "Babel." With the backing of the famous human rights group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Santaolalla brought the book to press through his publishing group, Retina Editores.

"This was one of the greatest experiences of my life: meeting the Mothers and seeing how they could transform some of the most horrendous things that can happen in your life -- such as losing a child, brother, sister or father -- into super-positive energy that has to do with life, not death," he said in an interview.

Nora Cortinas of the Mothers said the missing would be glad to be honored this way. "Our children wouldn't have wanted marble or bronze plaques."

The book, which came out in mid-September, contains English versions of most of the poems, and Santaolalla said future editions could add more verses as well as French, German and Italian translations.

Meanwhile a related website, www.poesiadiaria.com.ar, collects more than 500 tributes and invites multilingual volunteers to translate the "fragments of stolen love" into English and French. Giannoni said that U.S. high school students who made some translations reported learning about Argentine history in a way that they will never forget.

Argentine singer and human rights activist Leon Grieco, who collaborates frequently with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, said "Poesia Diaria" takes the public behind the faded pictures that they have carried in their weekly marches for decades.

"We all know the photographs but not the stories behind them," Grieco said. "This book brings us a little closer to the disappeared through the poetry of those who knew them."

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