When they learned their fathers led the reign of kidnapping, torture and murder that tore Argentina apart, their first reaction was disbelief. Their next was to take action.
By Sam Harrison
Published on Narratively, March 28, 2019
Analía Kalinec was at home in Buenos Aires with her one-and-a-half-year-old son when she received an alarming phone call from her mother. “Look, don’t be scared, but Dad’s in jail,” her mother said. Kalinec was stunned. Her father was a police officer, and they were a tight-knit family. Her mother assured her that it was all a misunderstanding, and Kalinec believed her.
But it was not a misunderstanding. Eduardo Emilio Kalinec was accused of kidnapping, murder and torture. His crimes weren’t recent; they’d taken place decades before that 2005 phone call, during the rule of the military dictatorship that controlled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. During that time, the government exterminated political and ideological dissidents: Up to 30,000 victims were “disappeared”; many were sedated and thrown out of airplanes into the River Plate. Many more were taken from their homes, tortured and eventually released. Up to 500 babies were stolen from their captive mothers and given away in secret adoptions to pro-military families.
Analía Kalinec was born during the dictatorship. She’d had a happy childhood, free from worry. Her parents never argued. She and her sisters were obedient kids and good students. She never thought about her father’s job. He went to work everyday; that’s what fathers did in her world, while mothers stayed home to take care of the children.
The family moved in closed circles: Their friends were police officers. They went on vacation with other police officers. It wasn’t until she grew up and went to public university that she began to discover other ways of thinking. But still, she remained close with her family.
Then the politics in Argentina started changing. President Néstor Kirchner, who was elected in 2003, abolished two laws from the 1980s that had protected genocidas — as criminals of the dictatorship are sometimes called by human rights activists in Argentina — from investigation and prosecution, and restarted trials for crimes committed during the dictatorship.
When her father was arrested, Analía Kalinec visited him diligently. It was all a mistake, he assured her; he would be released soon. But months and years passed while the investigation continued, and she began to have doubts. If this was all a misunderstanding, why was her father still in prison? She started to learn more about the historical context: about the dictatorship, and the disappearances, and the murders.
“At first I thought, OK, that is all horrible, but they made a mistake with my dad. Because he had nothing to do with that. He was a police officer, but he wasn’t there. He can’t have been there,” Kalinec says. But as the investigation moved forward and the trial date was set, she read the testimonials, and with them the legal case against him. She cried through all 812 pages, the accusations of kidnapping and torture. “Discovering that your father is capable of such things is horrendous,” she says. “It breaks your mind.”
Reeling, she sat down and wrote a long letter to her father. Pages and pages came tumbling out; she told him how she hoped he would ask forgiveness for all the harm he’d caused; how it was right for him to be in prison for what he’d done. Finally, she sent it to her mother and sisters, who were furious and cut her out of the family.
When the first hearing for her father’s trial came around on November 24, 2009, Analía Kalinec and a cousin sat among the audience in a Buenos Aires courtroom. Three judges presided over the year-long trial, hearing accusations of crimes committed against 183 victims. All 16 accused were ex-police officers like Analía Kalinec’s father or ex-military officers, who held civilians captive in secret, government-sanctioned detention centers.
Witnesses testified that the conditions in the detention centers were horrendous; victims were kidnapped, often in the dead of night, and blindfolded. They were assigned numbers and forbidden from using their names, beaten severely if they forgot to comply. In some centers, they were kept in “tubes,” cells so small they were unable to wash or clean themselves. Often they were taken to the “operating room,” where their captors used an electric prod to poke and burn them, sometimes for days at a time.
One victim, Delia Barrera y Ferrando, recounted how after a brutal torture session a guard known as “Dr. K,” told her, “Your ribs are broken, but we can’t bandage them because you might use the bandages to hang yourself.” Another woman, at the time 16 and pregnant, recounted how Dr. K asked her, “Do you want me to spread your legs and make you abort?”
All of the guards used pseudonyms to protect their identities. There was “Kung Fu” who liked to practice fake martial arts on his victims, and “Führer,” who made them shout “Heil Hitler!” Dr. K was a popular cleaning product at the time. It was also the pseudonym for Eduardo Kalinec, Analía’s father.
Many of those who entered these detention centers, including Barrera y Ferrando’s partner, Hugo Alberto Scutari, are still missing and presumed murdered, their bodies never recovered.
Several witnesses testified that while inside the tubes they could hear their captors playing Ping-Pong in a break room.
The courtroom was packed with people; on the ground floor, the family members and friends of the victims; in the balcony, the families of the accused.
With one exception: Analía Kalinec sat with the victims. She and her father didn’t speak; she isn’t even sure if he knew she was there. But she felt she had to go, as a personal gesture and a political one. “I wasn’t there as his family member, to accompany him. I was there as part of society, to reject what he did and work to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Kalinec says.
Over a year after the trial began, Eduardo Kalinec and 14 others were convicted of “homicide, unlawful deprivation of liberty, torture,” and because they were public servants, “abusing their position.” Kalinec was given life without parole. On the victims’ floor, the room erupted into cheers and applause. The organization HIJOS organized a musical festival for human rights outside of the courthouse doors.
Kalinec watched most of the trial unfold in the newspapers and on television. She’d had a second child. She started going to therapy. She became a teacher. She told people in her social circle who her father was, and what he had done. Talking was almost compulsive, a way for her to process what was happening. Her sisters refused to speak to her.
In many ways, Kalinec was an anomaly: By speaking out within her family, she was breaking the tacit “code of silence” that is sacrosanct in such military and police environments. She knew others must be going through similar experiences — the investigations that had put her father in prison were continuing, and more men were being arrested for crimes committed during the dictatorship — but she didn’t actually know anyone else like herself.
Then, one day years later, in 2016, she received a message from Liliana Furió, an Argentine documentary filmmaker. Like Kalinec, Furió’s father had been arrested for crimes committed on behalf of the military in the 1970s and 1980s, and been sentenced to life in prison in 2012.
They knew immediately that they had to meet. Their connection was instant: They shared a similar background, but also similar political convictions and a desire to use their personal stories to create change. They began seeing each other regularly and attending political protests together.
At the time, Argentina was in a period of transition: After more than 10 years of left-wing presidencies — first with Néstor Kirchner from 2003 to 2007, followed by his wife Cristina from 2007 to 2015 — Argentina had elected center-right President Mauricio Macri. Both Néstor (who passed away in 2010) and Cristina Kirchner are celebrated by victims’ rights activists as leaders of the movement to prosecute dictatorship-era oppressors. Some activists have accused Macri’s current government of taking a step backward. He has publicly doubted that there were 30,000 victims of the dictatorship and has referred to the dictatorship era as a “dirty war,” a very contested term in Argentina because it implies that the government was fighting against political dissidents on equal footing instead of oppressing its citizens.
But the breaking point came with the 2017 “2×1” (two for one) ruling by the Argentine Supreme Court that counted days spent in prison while awaiting trial as double time served. This change was originally intended to address overpopulation in the country’s prisons, but it also threatened to shorten the sentences of genocidas, sometimes by years.
Massive protests followed. Both Macri and Cristina Kirchner, from opposite sides of the political divide, publicly disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision.
On May 10 of that year, Furió and Kalinec met in the Plaza de Mayo to protest in front of the Argentine seat of government, along with hundreds of thousands of others.
A few days later, Kalinec spotted a viral article written by another daughter of a genocida, speaking of her experience and protesting the 2×1 ruling. “I called Lili and said ‘Look, there are others, we have to look for them, we have to meet,’” Kalinec remembers.
On May 25, 2017, six children of genocidas met at Furió’s apartment in Buenos Aires. Together, they decided to turn their family history into a political collective: They created Historias Desobedientes, or Disobedient Stories. They later added a subtitle: “Family members of Genocidas for Justice, Memory and Truth.”
“We inherited a history, a history that came to us from our grandparents and our parents,” says Kalinec. “So we said, let’s do something different. For ourselves and our children too. So that we can transform our legacy and transform all this hate, all this evil, all this pain that was caused. We aren’t trying to fix anything, because that’s not our responsibility. But we are trying to help reconstruct, to help overcome.”
Many of the members of Historias Desobedientes have been cut off from their families, some of whom still defend what their relatives did. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently heard from legal organizations and family members of genocidas who argued that denying genocidas older than 65 the right to house arrest was a violation of their human rights, and that the Argentine justice system was discriminating against them for their roles in the dictatorship.
By banding together to create a public political collective, Historias Desobedientes is destroying the secretive mandates that have carried from one generation to the next, imposing silence on entire families.
“We disobey all orders,” says Paula Lagorio, a member of the group.
“Orders of silence, orders of loyalty,” Kalinec adds.
“Disobeying” is doubly transgressive for the members of Historias Desobedientes, as many of their fathers used the excuse of “just following orders” during their trials.
The group planned its first public appearance for only a few days after its initial meeting, at a feminist march, a setting chosen to symbolize the group’s rejection of the patriarchal and machista norms that were so prevalent in their military and police families growing up.
In a sea of thousands of people in downtown Buenos Aires, a group of four gathered together under a banner that read: “Sons, daughters and family members of genocidas for memory, truth and justice.”
“It was like a baptism of fire, I think,” says Kalinec. Even in this giant crowd, the tiny group stood out. People stared at their sign, curious. Other children of genocidascame up to them, as did victims of the dictatorship. Everyone who saw their banner was surprised, but welcoming. “Some people stayed behind to take photos, others came up to us, crying, and hugged us,” says Kalinec. “They would tell about how they were held in detention, or how one of their family members was disappeared … it was very emotional.”
Today Historias Desobedientes has around 40 members, and more than 100 people have gotten in touch with them to share similar stories. Like Kalinec and Furió, each of these people has gone through a process of discovery, denial and horror at what their fathers — or in some cases grandfathers, uncles, brothers — had done.
Because of the massive backlash, the 2×1 ruling was rescinded. But Historias Desobedientes continues its fight: They’ve participated in protests and given interviews about their backgrounds to national and international outlets. They’ve published a book about their experiences, and spoken out against granting genocidashouse arrest (which is allowed in Argentina in certain cases for prisoners over 70).
Most important, they publicly reject their family members’ actions. “If I say, ‘My father was a genocida,’ the first thing people will think is that I support him,” says Lagorio. “So there’s also this idea of breaking permanently with what our fathers were. No. I choose not to be that.”
Argentine law prevents Lagorio and other children of genocidas from testifying against their family members. They have presented the Argentine Congress with a legal proposal to change this. Though Kalinec’s and Furió’s fathers are in prison, several of the members of the collective, including Lagorio, believe that they have incriminating information about family members who are not currently being investigated. The proposal is making its way through the legal system.
To the members of Historias Desobedientes, being forbidden from testifying is another form of enforced silence. And time is running out: Many of the men now being tried are in their 70s and 80s. If nothing is done, they will take any information they have about illegal adoptions and the fates of their victims to their graves, robbing families of a chance to ever learn what happened to their loved ones.
In November 2018, the collective organized its first conference at the University of Social Sciences in Buenos Aires. The classroom was packed with people of all ages. At a long table at the front, Analía Kalinec, Liliana Furió and other members of Historias Desobedientes presented their collective to the room and read excerpts from their new book, Disobedient Writings (Escritos Desobedientes), which sold out before the end of the day.
A very small old woman wearing a white kerchief walked in, and the room burst into applause. Nora Cortiñas is one of the leaders of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group that has been fighting, since before the dictatorship ended, for the return of disappeared children. Cortiñas’s son Carlos was taken in 1977.
“I’m not afraid of reconciliation,” Cortiñas said. “I’m very moved. I feel more patriotic than ever.” Behind her, Liliana Furió’s eyes filled with tears.
Cortiñas led the room in a chant: “Treinta mil desaparecidos!” she shouted. “Presente!” the room responded. (“Thirty thousand disappeared!” and “Present!”)
“Ahora,” she continued. “Y siempre!” the room finished. (“Now, and always.”)
Kalinec took the microphone, smiling. “Thank you, Norita,” she said, “for making this political gesture of joining the Desobedientes today.”
The mother of a disappeared son and the children of murderers stood together at the front of the room, holding hands and smiling.