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The Storytellers

Family ties heal dictatorship's wounds

Pilar Campliglia's childhood was marked by the murderous dictatorship that ran Argentina and destroyed her family in the 1970s. It took her years before she found the route to recovery - which again was all about family.

Pilar Campiglia was in the middle of a psychoanalysis exam when she learned that former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla had died in May at the age of 87. He had been serving multiple life sentences for crimes against humanity. He never revealed what he knew about estimated 30,000 people who disappeared during the dictatorship, something Campiglia regrets.

It bothers her less that the mega-trial against Videla and others, and in which she was a plaintiff in the case of Alcira Campiglia's death, never reached its conclusion.

"Since Videla was convicted for others, he was convicted for my mother," says Pilar, a 37-year-old social psychologist and mother of three. The important thing was that Videla had to pay for his crimes.

People hold signs that read in Spanish Give the children back outside a court where Argentina's historic stolen babies trial is being held in Buenos Aires on July 5, 2012 (Photo: Natacha Pisarenko)

Decades after the restoration of democracy, many Argentines still don't know the fate of their loved ones

Campiglia's parents were Montoneros - members of a leftist guerrilla group that surfaced during Argentina's chaotic 1970s. When Campiglia was 13 months old, her mother was kidnapped and killed by the military.

"I fantasized that my mother was alive," Campiglia recalls. "I looked through my grandmother's purses - through her address books - to see if I could find my mother's telephone number. I remember that I found a number in an address book, and I called it, but they told me, 'No, Alcira doesn't live here.'"

A month after her mother's disappearance, Campiglia's father was forced to flee to Mexico, leaving Campiglia with her maternal grandparents.

She decided to avoid talking about her real parents, and told her classmates and teachers they had died in a car accident.

"Everyone knew it wasn't true," she says. They gossiped and speculated about what had happened suspected. "My classmates didn't invite me to their birthday parties. They didn't come to my house. They didn't invite me to their houses."

She was shut out, an outcast.

But she wasn't the only one; her whole family was isolated. People were afraid that if they associated with "subversives," they, too, might be disappeared by the military.

Campiglia's childhood was characterized by loneliness and fear. She could never feel completely safe. Members of the military followed her grandfather to and from work every day, and groups of soldiers sometimes broke into their home, looking for information about Campiglia's uncle, who was also a Montonero.

"They came banging on the door," she recalls. "One of them grabbed me and put a gun to my head as a joke. My grandmother screamed at him, telling him he had no shame: How did it occur to him to mess around with a child?"

The military found and killed Campiglia's uncle, her grandparents' last surviving child. As their only remaining relative, she could sense that she had become their reason for staying alive.

An estranged family

Campiglia's father came back from exile after Argentina returned to democracy in December 1983. He wanted his seven-year-old daughter to live with him, his new wife and their nine-month-old son. He also wanted to give her his surname.

But her grandparents refused to give her up. For a time, they hid her in a little town in the state of Cordoba. After returning to Buenos Aires, they fought for custody rights.

She took her grandparents' side in the custody battle, Campiglia says, "because I felt safe and comfortable with them, and because they were, from my point of view, the victims. They were the ones who needed me, and they were the ones I felt close to because they had raised me."

The fight came to an end over a decade later, when, at 20, Campiglia married her boyfriend and thus emancipated herself.

The birth of her first child, Damian, a year later was a wake-up call and the beginning of a process of healing.

"Becoming a mother changes your worldview," she says. "I understood what I would be capable of, if my son was taken away from me. I understood that I couldn't deny Damian his grandfather," she explains. "I hadn't had my parents, and I wanted my child to have everything."

It prompted Campiglia to develop a relationship with her father and his family.

Staff of the forensic anthropology team from Argentina work with exhumed corpses in San Vicente Cemetery in Cordoba, Argentina

Forensic anthropologists have worked to exhume the bodies of the 'disappeared'

And then came the next step in the healing process: Her son started asking questions about her mother's death that she had stopped asking years earlier. She didn't know how her mother was killed. The regime had kept such things secret.

In 2006, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team used DNA-matching to prove that one of the 2,000 bodies they found in a mass grave belonged to Campiglia's mother.

That gave her some closure. But what really helped to heal her emotional scars was finding her own identity in her family.

"My way of recuperating was, 'I need to build a family; I need to build a family' - to have a lot of affection, to be loved a great deal. That's my center: my husband, my children," she says. "The four of them are the light of my life."

That revelation now drives Campiglia's work as a psychologist helping other children of the disappeared get through the process of mourning their loved ones and forming their own identity in the absence of parents.

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