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​The many colours of Esther’s story

· ​From Paraguay to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo ·

The colours are what first strikes one on entering the square: the field, the flags, the tones of the Casa Rosada, and also those of the Banco de la Nación Argentina and of the cathedral on the left. And yet, in order to concentrate better on the spaces, there is nothing particularly garish in Plaza de Mayo in the heart of Buenos Aires: the point is that the story of the Madres [mothers] and, with them, the story of the victims of the Argentine dictatorship – for those who have not lived it at first hand – is a story in black and white. It is in fact the story of the smiling faces that stand out in thousands of fluttering photographs of those who in desperation did not want to resign themselves to the disappearance of their loved ones, swallowed up in the deafening silence of the Guerra Sucia [Dirty War].

Yet in looking round a bit one realizes that there are thousands of colours in the events of this indomitable people and of its Madres. This is the case of the story of Esther Ballestrino, a Paraguayan champion of the weak who, in the attempt to flee the dictatorship of her own country sought shelter in neighbouring Argentina, thus ending by being engulfed in another inhuman regime.

The colours of Esther’s story are, first of all, the colours of Encarnación, Paraguay’s third city, where the baby girl was born in the winter of 1918, on 20 January. Esther was remarkably lively from an early age in her family, with friends and at school. And while she was working for a teacher’s diploma first and then a diploma in biochemistry and pharmacy at the University of Asunción, she was already very active on behalf of the lowliest and the persecuted. She supported the Partito Revolucionario Febrerista of socialist inspiration and while the dictatorship of Morínigio (1940-1948) was raging, at the age of 28 she was one of the promotors of the Unión Democrática de Mujeres, disbanded the following year in order to found the Movimento Femenino Febrerista de Emancipación. It was 1947. However the regime did not forgive: Esther found herself forced to escape to neighbouring Argentina, where she married Raymundo Careaga.

Other than the colours of political passion, the following years had the colours of a life lived feverishly and enthusiastically in Buenos Aires. She had three daughters – Esther, Mabel and Ana María – but their mother nevertheless managed to disentangle herself from commitments, continuing her profession as a biochemist.

In the mid-1950s, while Esther was in charge of a laboratory, a boy of Italian origin came to work there. He was called Jorge Mario Bergoglio. There were many differences between them, but this did not prevent the birth of a deep and lasting relationship.

In the meantime the years passed until on 1 July 1974, with Peron’s death, the colours of Argentina became darker and darker, culminating in the coup of 24 March 1976. So it was that the dictatorship once again burst into Esther’s life. The script was the same. Passionate about justice, a friend of the weak with Communist sympathies, she continued to speak, to write and to fight for freedom, while the regime kept an eye on her.

In fact Esther initially asked for – and surprisingly obtained – the status of refugee from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR/ACNUR); she was one of the few cases in the whole of Latin America but obviously this did not prevent the Dirty War from exploding among those she loved most. On 13 September 1976 her son-in-law Manuel Carlos Cuevas, the husband of her second daughter Mabel, was kidnapped.

It was in this situation that Fr Bergoglio received a strange telephone call from the director of long ago – with whom he had not in fact lost contact. He, a Jesuit priest, hurried to his atheist friend’s home but when he arrived it was clear that there was no trace of the mother-in-law for whom the last rites had been requested. Esther asked him for help because her youngest daughter Ana Maria was under control and had to get rid of her Marxist library. Bergoglio did not bat an eyelid: he took the books and hid them at home. He was running an enormous risk. In Argentina at that time being a religious was no protection at all. Hiding her books, however, did not save the girl who was arrested on 13 June 1977. She was only 16 and was three months pregnant. Like a shocking number of her peers, she was tortured at the Athletic Club in San Telmo, a clandestine detention centre.

From the day of her youngest daughter’s arrest, a new colour entered Esther’s life: the white handkerchiefs of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, founded on 30 April 1977 when 14 mothers marched in the square asking to know what had happened to their disappeared children. And since 14 June, Esther played the game too.

Fortunately, however, in October Ana Maria was released. Esther realized that she had to take her three daughters to safety, first in Brazil and then in Sweden. However the exile did not last long. The Madres begged her to stay where she was, but Esther came back: “I’m staying here with you until we get them all back alive” was her answer, also witnessed by a military informer, Gustavo Astiz.

In an instant the colour of tragedy ended the story of this enthusiastic and courageous woman. Indeed, on 8 December, as she was coming out of the Church of Santa Cruz (between the streets of Urquiza and Estados Unidos), at the end of a fund-collecting meeting for the publication in the daily La Nación of the letter which asked the institution to account for the disappeared people, Esther was arrested – together with her mother, Maria Ponce, and ten other people, including two French nuns, Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, by the former captain of the Navy, Alfredo Astiz. She was 59 years old and never returned home.

According to some testimonies, Esther spent a few days in the Capucha dell’Esma sector (Escuela Mecánica de la Armada), the most brutal detention centre located right in the heart of Buenos Aires, before being eliminated by a vuelo della muerte.

“An extraordinary woman, a great woman to whom I am deeply indebted”, the young man of Italian origin who had worked under her in Buenos Aires was to say. “In that laboratory I understood the beauty and the ugliness of every human activity”.

Giulia Galeotti

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