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Still searching for Argentina's missing children

/ Source: The Associated Press

Clara Petrakos knows this much about her sister: the baby was cut from her mother's umbilical cord on the floor of a clandestine detention center during Argentina's last dictatorship in April 1977. Their mother, who was soon "disappeared," named her Victoria before the baby was taken away.

Petrakos has seized upon these sparse details in her search for the little sister she never knew _ one of the hundreds of babies taken from "the disappeared" during Argentina's dictatorship.

As the nation marks Friday's 30th anniversary of the military coup that ushered in the "Dirty War" on dissenters, these children — now adults — are being doggedly sought after by relatives trying to repair the gaps in families torn apart long ago.

Many of the junta's youngest victims were infants, abducted along with their parents or born into captivity to political prisoners. In many cases their identities were changed, and they were distributed like "war booty," to be raised by other families, in the words of the 1984 government report "Never Again."

Petrako's is one of 240 cases being tracked by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights group formed during the dictatorship.

Some were reportedly abandoned in orphanages as unidentified babies. Others were handed over in illegal adoptions to parents with varying degrees of knowledge of where the baby came from. Many were taken in by families of the same military and police officers involved in the repression.

Wondering about their parents
So far 82 children have recovered their identities. Petrakos remembers watching one such case on the news — a crying girl who was dragged away, returned to biological relatives in 1989.

Now, many such children are well into their 20s, young adults who are coming forward with doubts.

Some ask why they look nothing like their parents, or wonder why their mother has no pictures of herself pregnant, explained Rosa Tarlovsky de Roisinblit, vice president of the Grandmothers.

In 2001, Roisinblit managed to find her own grandson, now 27. He was taken shortly at birth from his mother in the main torture center in Buenos Aires. It has taken them years to build a good relationship.

"One thing is finding someone else's grandson. It's another to find your own," she said. "It wasn't easy for him; it wasn't easy for me. But now I can say the relation with my grandson is really good."

Petrakos says she thinks every day about what may have come of her only sister. Both their parents were active in leftist groups. Their mother, Maria Eloisa Castellini, was 21 and pregnant when she was abducted in November 1976 in the kindergarten where she worked. Their father, Constantino Petrakos, fled to Spain in 1977 and told friends he was intending to return to Argentina before he too disappeared. Petrakos, just 9 months old when her mother was kidnapped, was raised by her paternal grandparents.

"My sister could walk right by me at any moment," says Petrakos. "To think that these kids have been raised by people who killed, tortured, and kidnapped their parents is so sick, that I hope that's not the case of my sister. But until I find her, I have no way of knowing."

Now living a comfortable suburban life with a husband, two kids, and a degree in chemical engineering, Petrakos began searching full-time for her sister about six years ago.

Hundreds of e-mails
She's posted appeals on Web sites and listserves, including a picture of herself with her parents. She names the suburban detention center known as "Pozo de Banfield" where her sister was born, and says the woman can "can have any first or last name or date of birth," since her birth certificate was most likely falsified.

She's received hundreds of e-mails, sometimes dozens a day, and has met with 10 women. None of the leads have panned out.

Now she can only hope that as adoptive parents begin to die, the grown children will come forward, no longer having to worry about incriminating those who raised them. The baby kidnappings have long been an exception to since-repealed amnesty laws that shielded hundreds of military officials from prosecution for Dirty War abuses.

One of the junta leaders, Jorge Rafael Videla, has been under house arrest since 1998, under investigation along with other retired officers for what prosecutors say was a "systematic plan" to illegally appropriate babies during the Dirty War. That case continues.

The National Genetic Data Bank was created in 1987 in part to register the DNA of families of disappeared children. Ana Maria di Leonardo, the bank's recent director, told The Associated Press she expects the number of solved cases to accelerate in coming years.

"If you have people who know at the bottom of their heart that they were never the son or daughter of these people, they're going to come forward," she said.

Kirchner has made human rights a priority, campaigning for last year's repeal of the amnesty laws. He has said his government would not stand in the way of the justice system and recently announced new efforts to reopen more historical files.

Petrakos and the Grandmothers hope one day that the armed forces will hand over information about the whereabouts of the children — "It's that simple," Petrakos said.

In the meantime, she keeps searching for Victoria.

"I want to give her the possibility of knowing about her parents, her origin, to know that she wasn't abandoned. Then she can decide how much she wants to know and not know," she said. "I want to give her back the possibility they stole from her the day they took her away from the arms of her mother — our mother."