When babies were kidnap victims in Argentina

by Cesar Chelala

The recent conviction of two former Argentine dictators for their role in baby thefts brings to my mind a meeting I had in 1991 with Adriana Calvo de Laborde, an Argentine physicist who in 1977 had been imprisoned by the military while she was 6½ months pregnant.

I asked her to tell me her story and after some initial refusal to do so — on the grounds that she had been luckier than most of her friends in prison — she told me what had happened to her and the role that one of my medical colleagues, Dr. Jorge A. Berges, had in her mistreatment.

“I was in prison when my daughter Teresa was born,” Laborde told me. “The day that happened — it was April 15, 1977 — in spite of the cold weather, the fear, the pain I was having, and also in spite of the filth surrounding me, I had felt the need to wash myself up. This was ludicrous, since I had already been in prison for more than two months and during all that time I had been unable even to take a shower.

“That day, however, I pulled off my dress and began to sew it. I then washed my underwear and began to pull the hairs off my legs. Since I didn’t have the means to do it properly, I scratched my fingers against the cement walls so that they would become rough enough to pull out the hairs in my legs. As soon as I finished, I started having labor pains.

Prior to delivering her baby, Laborde had been sharing her prison cell with four other women who, seeing her in pain, called the guard on duty. He refused to come for a long time, but five hours after the contractions began, she was put, blindfolded, with her hands tied behind her back, into the back seat of a car that drove toward Buenos Aires City.

“In the middle of the trip I again had painful contractions and the policemen stopped the car by the roadside. There, in spite of having my hands tied behind my back, I gave birth to Teresa. In the back of the car, sitting next to me, there was a woman named Lucrecia, who had been collaborating with the police. She tried to help me, but she was so nervous that instead she hurt me with her nails. Lucrecia asked the men in the front of the car to give her a rag from the glove compartment. They gave her a piece of cloth with which they tied my umbilical cord, but they were unable to cut it. These policemen were taking me to Buenos Aires province where Dr. Berges was working at the time.

“When I delivered Teresa I was unable to hold her in my hands because they were still tied up behind my back, so she slipped, crying between my legs, to the floor of the car. When we reached our destination it was late at night and it was very cold. In spite of that, I was kept in the car for almost an hour until Berges was ready to see me.

“Berges cut the umbilical cord and ordered the policemen to take me inside the building. I was taken up the stairs to a room where there was a stretcher. At that moment Berges took off my blindfold and told me, ‘Now you don’t need this.’ He then asked me to lay down in the stretcher, took out the placenta and gave me an injection. He asked the other men for a bucket and a brush and made me clean the stretcher and the floor while my baby — naked and dirty with meconium — was crying on a table with white tiles. I washed myself up and they gave me my little girl, whom I also cleaned. In the meantime, Berges was smoking quietly while the men who were with him insulted me. At one point I couldn’t stand any longer, lost my temper, and insulted them back.

“Shortly afterward they left me alone with my daughter. Since I had been imprisoned, that was the first time I could sleep on a bed with a mattress and a cover. I slept soundly until I was awakened by the noise of my baby trying to get rid of the secretions in her nose, something that made me feel tremendously guilty.

“At dawn, they took me to a cell where I saw friends I had lost track earlier.

“I spent 13 days without medicine, without clothes, without soap. The only thing I had — but the most important — was the solidarity and help of my friends. We were fed only once every three days, but always one of my cell companions gave me half of her ration. The guards wanted to take my daughter away, but I didn’t allow them to do it. I had to fight like a lioness not to let them take her away from me. I had lost all hope of being released when, on April 28, 1977, a group of men came for us in a car and, together with my daughter, we were left in the area of Temperley, Buenos Aires province, close to my parents’ house.”

After her liberation, Laborde became an ardent advocate for human rights in Argentina, and repeatedly denounced Berges’ participation in the torture of detainees. Laborde was the first survivor of the clandestine detention centers to declare against the military in the Trial of the Military Juntas in 1985.

In 2004, Berges was condemned to seven years in prison. Laborde’s testimony was critical in his conviction.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for “Missing or Dead in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims,” a cover story for The New York Times Magazine.