< Twenty Years Later

Transcript

Friday, January 18, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina was ruled by a brutal military dictatorship called the junta. Tens of thousands of Argentineans were killed and disappeared in those seven years. In 1987, The Wall Street Journal reporter Roger Cohen wrote a story about twin Argentinean boys torn from their family by the junta. His story changed the boys’ lives, and for two decades Cohen believed he'd changed their lives for the better.

This year he returned to Argentina to discover that he might have been wrong. Cohen wrote about his recent trip to Argentina in The New York Times, where he is now an Op-Ed columnist. He says that when the junta ruled Argentina, one of their most barbaric acts was to kill women immediately after they'd given birth and kidnap their newborn children.
ROGER COHEN:
And the children, several hundred of them over the course of seven years, were then taken by military or police families who were childless.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, some tips from an NGO sent you from Argentina to Paraguay and the family of a former Argentine military policeman named Samuel Miara. Tell me what you found there.

ROGER COHEN:
Well, I went to Paraguay because I had had a tip from the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo and also from a particular family called Rossetti-Ross - the father was called Rossetti, the mother, who'd been killed, was called Ross - that Liliana Ross had given birth to twin boys, and these boys, after the murder of their mother, had been taken by this police officer, Miara, to Asuncion.

I went to Asuncion, you know, with no great hope that I would meet him. After all, I was there to say, are you the guy who’s stolen two children from a murdered woman? Are you masquerading, along with your wife, as the parents of these two kids, then 10 years old?

I did track him down. I found his house in the suburbs of Asuncion. Miara, a small, swarthy man, comes out smoking a cigarette and asks me who I am. I tell him I'm a reporter for an American paper and what I'm interested in, and to my astonishment he invites me in.

He railed against those who were accusing him of having stolen these children and insisted that these boys, who were playing soccer out in the yard, were his.
BOB GARFIELD:
Although they were very fair-skinned and blond, and he himself, as you say, was quite swarthy.
ROGER COHEN:
Perhaps I was projecting this, that they resembled quite strongly their father, Adalberto Rossetti, who had survived by fleeing to Europe after his wife was seized.

I went back. I wrote the story. The Wall Street Journal published it prominently on page one. My general feeling was that I had done something good. I had not only shed light on a very dark and painful passage in Argentine history that it behooved all Argentines to know about, for the dead, for Liliana Ross, and indeed for the twins, because however pleasant, quiet, tranquil and apparently unruffled their existence was in this Asuncion suburb, they were living a lie.
BOB GARFIELD:
Miara was jailed in Argentina. It was demonstrated that he was not the biological father of the twins, and he was charged at the time with kidnapping. Subsequently he would be charged on other human rights violations, crimes against humanity.

But when you returned, as far as you knew, these children were the natural-born children of the disappeared couple whom you'd first suspected to be their biological parents. Then what happened?
ROGER COHEN:
As it transpired, when the DNA and blood tests were done, which proved that Miara and his wife were not the parents, it was discovered that Liliana Ross and Rossetti were not, in fact, the biological parents. These children were, in fact, born to another couple who'd been in the same prison and she, too – Maria Tolosa was her name – had had twins three weeks after Liliana. These children were not the Rossetti-Ross children but they were the Reggiardo-Tolosa children.

Now, in this instance, both the parents, then age 24, both of them medical students, had been murdered. There were no parents around.
BOB GARFIELD:
So they were victims of exactly the sort of nightmare that you'd suspected, but it was a parallel nightmare. And in this case there was no natural parent in whose custody the children could go. What happened to them?
ROGER COHEN:
An uncle emerged, named Eduardo Tolosa, and for a while the children went to stay with him.

I'm hearing this at second hand, but what I heard when in Buenos Aires from people who, I believe, know — they said that it was essentially disastrous, partly because the physical conditions were difficult, partly because the relationship with the uncle was difficult, partly because the boys clung to Mrs. Miara whom they had formed, obviously, a very intense bond with, even after they learned what had happened.

In the end, courts determined that they should go and live for a while with a “substitute family,” quote, unquote, family with the physical means to look after the boys, but clearly [LAUGHS] not a very happy outcome.
BOB GARFIELD:
So they bounced around, like many foster children do, from one unhappy circumstance to another. Do you know how they fare today?
ROGER COHEN:
Well, I don't. The most fascinating thing that has happened is that yesterday evening I received an email from – or at least it said it was from Matias Reggiardo Tolosa, one of the boys, now men, 30 years old, born in 1977. He said he had read with fascination my piece; there were important things I didn't know that I should know and that he wanted to talk to me.

So I, of course, sent him greetings. And, you know, I last saw him when he was 10, playing in this yard, and he, of course, didn't know who I was. I've not heard back. We'll see where that goes.

I heard from another person when I was writing the column that one of the boys has, in a sense, sided with his biological mother and one has tended to side more with Mrs. Miara, the woman who raised him for much of his life. But I have no direct knowledge of that. That’s indirect.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, this is a story about a journalist intervening in people’s lives. And in your piece in The Times you asked aloud, was the intrusion worth it. You've had some time to ponder this. What do you think now?
ROGER COHEN:
You know, I stand by [LAUGHING] what I did. I'm not a psychologist, but I think that at some deep level, if the situation you’re living is a lie, and the situation these boys were living was one, and, moreover, at least the father was complicit in some way in the murder of these children’s parents - that situation, I do not believe, can be healthy.

I was, however, I think, too flip. There is a flippancy to what we do sometimes, I mean, a flippancy in the sense that we do something and we move on, and we perhaps don't examine often enough what exactly has transpired.

You know, in this instance it was much more complex than I imagined because there was no father. But I think in the end, for the dead, for Argentina and even, on balance, for the boys, but not in as clear-cut a way as I'd thought, this was to the good.
BOB GARFIELD:
I'm haunted by the email that you got about you not knowing what you did not know. And so often as journalists we encounter situations which seem so clear but we lack certain information that may change the picture altogether.
ROGER COHEN:
You know, I hope and believe this email was genuine, and I certainly don't exclude, you know, going back there if we do make firm contact. More generally, Argentina lived under terror. When societies emerge from these states, any society emerging has to balance truth with justice.

And, as you just said, you know, newspapers deal much more easily with clear situations than they do with halftones. You know, we're presenting the truth, we say, but is it really the truth?
BOB GARFIELD:
To what extent do you think you would tell other journalists to take care when they take a spade and start digging down into the shallow graves of history?
ROGER COHEN:
Whatever journalists do in situations where you've had hundreds of thousands of people killed by a regime, you’re only going to, in any event, scratch the surface of the individual cases, and then it’s down to the museums and the archives and others to, you know, assemble the broader history.

But I don't think we should start telling each other to go easy. And, in fact, I think today the tendency is more to forget too easily than to dig too stubbornly. So I'd say dig stubbornly – and don't forget.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well, Roger, thank you very much. Whether it comes from Buenos Aires or the West 40s, we will look forward to the next chapter of this story. Thanks for joining us.
ROGER COHEN:
Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD:
Roger Cohen is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.