Hebe de Bonafini, who became a human rights campaigner when her two sons were arrested and then disappeared under Argentina’s military dictatorship has died, her family and authorities have reported. She was 93.

The death on Sunday was confirmed by her only surviving child, Alejandra, who expressed thanks for expressions of support her mother had received while hospitalised in the city of La Plata. Local officials said she had suffered from unspecified chronic illnesses.

Vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – a former president who had close ties with de Bonafini – posted a tweet calling her “a global symbol of the fight for human rights, pride of Argentina”.

Hebe María Pastor de Bonafini was one of the founders of the Association of Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in May 1977, two years after the military seized power and began a brutal crackdown on suspected leftwingers. She became president two years later and led the more radical of two factions of the organisation until her death.

The Mothers initially demanded the return, alive, of their children – and later punishment of the military figures responsible for seizing and killing them, with no public word of their fates.

Widely honoured for her human rights campaigns, she also was a controversial figure in later years for a radical opposition to US governments she blamed for backing rightwing dictatorships, her involvement in partisan politics and for a corruption scandal involving her group’s foundation.

De Bonafini was born in 1928 in the town of Ensenada outside the Argentinian capital and at 18 she married a youth from her neighbourhood, Humberto Alfredo Bonafini, and they had three children: Jorge, Raúl and Alejandra. Known to friends as Kika Pastor, her schooling stopped soon after primary school.

In Februrary 1977, soldiers seized her oldest son. A few months later, a second, Raúl, was also captured. Both had been members of leftist militant groups, one of them armed, de Bonafini later said.

As she made the rounds of hospitals, courthouses, police stations and morgues in search of one son, and later both, she ran into other women on the same mission.

Faced with stonewalling from officials, 14 of them began holding demonstrations at the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential residence to demand the appearance of their children.

It was a daring move at a time when the government prohibited meetings of more than three people. But they began gathering every Thursday, walking anticlockwise around a clocktower in the centre of the plaza.

During a religious pilgrimage later that year, they began wrapping cloth nappies – symbolising those once used by their missing children – around their heads, and white scarves became a symbol of the group.

The military government broke up early demonstrations. And it kidnapped and killed the first leader of the Mothers, Azucena Villaflor. But the group persisted.

When police would arrest one member, others would gather at the police station and ask to be arrested as well. When police would ask one to show her documents, the others would produce theirs as well – effectively prolonging the demonstration.

Looking back 30 years after the founding of the group, De Bonafini recalled: “We could not imagine that the dictatorship was so murderous, perverse and criminal,” and said she wanted to speak for “the children who were brilliant, cheerful, warriors, teachers, incredible, convinced revolutionaries”.

She said their spirits lived on: “Nobody goes forever,” she said. “We are their voice, their gaze, their heart, their breath. We conquer death, dear children.”

The Mothers and other activist groups say that about 30,000 dissidents disappeared during the dictatorship – a figure finally accepted by the current government. Earlier administrations had estimated up to 13,000.

Three years after the end of the dictatorship, the Mothers split into two factions in 1986, with De Bonafini leading the more radical organisation seeking systemic political change while the others focused more on legal issues.

Her anger often caused controversy, as when – after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York – she said: “I felt happiness. I am not going to be a hypocrite. It didn’t pain me at all.”

She established close ties in 2003 with the leftwing government of Néstor Kirchner, who later helped revoke the amnesty laws that had protected soldiers accused of crimes against humanity during the dictatorship.

Her defence of Kirchner and his wife and successor, Cristina Fernández, sometimes led to friction with other human rights groups who had criticised some of the leftwing administration’s policies.

De Bonafini herself fell into a scandal in 2011 when prosecutors accused her of irregularities involving public funds given to a foundation created by the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to build low-cost housing. Other officials of the foundation were convicted and the case against her had not been fully settled.



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