Mónica Mignone

by Maniza Naqvi

MonicaMónica was introduced to me, by her sister Isabel, on the kind of clear October day, when a sense of beauty, mirrors its temporal nature. She appeared into my conscience, just as Isabel and I walked past the Old Executive Building, past the White House, past museums and other buildings housing law firms, foundations, security agencies and lobby firms: past their plush and well-appointed interiors and past their very busy, busy staff in the heart of the city.

Isabel and I used to work together; frantically trying to meet deadlines to get things done against timelines and schedules spanning several time zones and trying to secure funding for social safety nets and cash transfers to the poorest people in a country in Africa. There hadn't been a moment to talk about anything else. In fact till about midnight of a date last year—we were doing just this in two separate locations working on our computers, when she was cut off from where I was logged on to. She had retired that day and at midnight, as was the procedure, she was no longer part of the system.

Then, a few weeks ago, Isabel sent me an email and wondered if her book group could read one of my books: On Air. I knew she would have a hard time finding copies on Amazon and so when we met over lunch, I brought along a few copies of another one: Stay With Me.

As we walked to lunch she told me about how she was now working as a human rights activist in Argentina with the institution which her father, a celebrated human rights activist, had founded. I had no idea about this. “I consider myself a human rights activist, but you know how it is. I could not work with Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS) before now because I had this job but in reality I had been supporting them in the past on a volunteer basis.”

“Wow,” I said, “Good for you!”

Then she told me about her sister, Mónica María Candelaria Mignone. Her sister worked in the slums of Argentina in 1976 with Catholic priests, nuns and several young adults to organize the poor. Her sister Mónica had been disappeared by the Military Junta on May 14, 1976. Mónica in 1976 was 24 years old. She became one of the 30,000 desaparecidos: the disappeared ones.

The Military broke into the Mignone's apartment at 5.00 a.m. in the morning—five men in plain clothes took Mónica away saying she was being taken for questioning to Palermo Barracks and would return in two hours. “Mónica said to my sister Mercedes: I won't need my make-up and gave it back to her. They said they were taking her for two hours to find out about another person and my mother asked if she could take money with her to come back by taxi and the men said yes and so my mom gave her a few pesos.” The family stood there helplessly as Mónica was escorted out of the house by the men.

“As soon as Mónica was taken my mother and brother hurried out of the apartment to the apartment of her friends to find out if they were okay but they had already been taken.” Then her parents went to the Palermo Barracks and the officials there denied having any knowledge about Mónica. Her parents went to the local police station to register a report and found that there were no witnesses to Mónica being taken except themselves—not even the police guarding a General's home in the building next door who should have seen her being taken—they were supposedly not on duty that night. Her father approached all his contacts and friends in high places and no one could tell them anything. No one seemed to know anything. Five of Mónica's friends were picked up that night while a sixth was picked up the next day.

“For years, my father and mother went to nearby beaches in the province of Buenos Aires to see if amongst the bodies that were washing up onto the shore perhaps one would be of my sister.”

That was thirty seven years ago. A detailed account of Mónica having been disappeared and the Disappeared can be read (here) in the book “Behind the Disappearances: Argentina's Dirty War Against Human Rights and the United Nations”, by Iain Guest.

I could barely see in front of me as I sort of stumbled alongside Isabel while she told me all of this that October day. All this time I had no idea about Isabel's sister or what concerned Isabel beyond our work. And Isabel had no idea that the book I wanted her group to read–written more than fifteen years ago and which I had brought with me to give to her—-was in many ways—Mónica's story imagined, and set on the other side of the earth.

Over the chatter in the glow of warm lamps, of mirrors and yellow painted walls, the lunch room bustled with cheerful business patrons and the clatter and clanging of crockery and cutlery—while Isabel and I sat there talking about how and why Mónica has not yet been found ever since she disappeared 37 years ago, abducted before dawn from the bosom of her family on May 14, 1976. I kept thinking of phrases in my novel: My yellow yellow walls. In my house, that night, when all was locked up, safe, concealed and the lamplight glowed upon my face and those of my sleeping family, when all was well, that night you broke in. You broke me.

Mónica has not come home. She has not been found there is no trace of her. Her father became a human rights activist in the quest to find his daughter. The entire family, including Isabel, her husband, her son, her brother, her sister, her mother and her father have since then made sure that Mónica will never disappear and that there will be justice for all the disappeared of Argentina. Isabel and her family are almost certain from the testimonies given by a few of the lucky ones that were freed that most probably Mónica was taken to the same facility at the Naval Mechanics School, ESMA in Buenos Aires, where the others were taken, the priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics.

“Bergoglio knew of this.” Isabel said to me. “He was the Jesuit Provincial for Argentina living in Buenos Aires—the slum district where Mónica had worked with a group of activist which included nuns and priests who practiced the Liberation Theology and who were helping people access basic services. A week after Mónica was taken, the two priests, whom Mónica knew since she was working in the same slum area (Bajo Flores) but in a different section had been arrested with several catechists. The Papal protection for them had been removed just days before they were arrested. Mónica was taken as were several of her friends. My father and mother went to everyone they could think of for help amongst the authorities and no one helped. They went to the Church. They approached the hierarchy of the Church including the Papal Nuncio, Pio Laghi, and pleaded for their help as did others but they, including Bergoglio, did nothing.”

“Who is Vergoglio?” I asked. She looked at me surprised and repeated “Bergoglio.” Pope Francis. He was part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church—he was the head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina at that time.” I stared at her, shocked.

Vergoglio—as the name sounded to me when Isabel pronounced it is–Jorge Mario Bergoglio, SJ, who was the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, who became Pope Francis. In 1976 Jorge Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina. He was part of the top hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Isabel told me about how in Argentina there was complicity of the Catholic Church that did not take kindly to Liberation Theology or the priests who practiced it. They opposed any idea that contradicted the status quo. In Argentina the Catholic Church supported the military dictatorship.

“There are even suggestions that bishops gave their blessing to General Jorge Videla and his fellow generals prior to the military coup of March 24th 1976. It's a matter of record that on the day of the coup, the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires Adolfo Tortolo emerged from a meeting with the junta to urge his fellow citizens to cooperate “in a positive way” with the new government. He later went out of his way to deny that any human rights abuses were being committed in Argentina.” (here).

Days later as I started writing about Mónica—I asked Isabel— “Your father went to him, to Bergoglio—Pope Francis —to ask him to help with finding Mónica and he refused to help?

Isabel said—“We don't know if my father talked to Bergoglio directly to ask for Mónica but he talked to hierarchy in the church—like the bishops—-And he knew Bergoglio so it's very possible he did approach him as well—my father went to whoever he could possibly go to— he was doing everything he could do to find Mónica.”

“So of course he was not going to leave any possibility out would he? But you are not hundred percent sure that your father went to Bergoglio?” I asked.

“No. What is a fact and my father said so in the trial of the Junta is that the Secretary of State at the time of Argentina who was a navy admiral told a friend of my father who was an ambassador to tell my father “Your friend Emilio does not know how valuable were his interventions for the release of Yorio and Jalics. And Yorio who met with my parents a couple of times after his release said the same thing, that they had been released due to my father not to Bergogolio.”

Horacio Verbitsky, who is the President of CELS since 2000 and a journalist has written extensively on the role of Bergoglio during Argentina's dictatorship.

“Verbitsky also spoke to Mónica Mignone's mother Angelica, who asserted that the two priests “were freed by the efforts of Emilio Mignone and the intercession of the Vatican, not by the actions of Bergoglio, who betrayed them”. Another of his interviewees, Yorio's brother Rodolfo, described Bergoglio as “a politician who loves power.” Much the same comment, seemingly at odds with the new Pope's modest demeanour, was made last night on Argentine radio by Eduardo de la Serna, coordinator of a left-wing group of priests, who described him as “a man of power [who] knows how position himself among powerful people. (here and here )”

From Verbitsky's articles and interviews and those of others included in this article a controversial image of Cardinal Bergoglio now Pope Francis emerges of a highly political man with a sense of self preservation and advancement who opposed the poor-centric Liberation Theology practiced by Mónica and her companions. Here is a video on the making of Pope Francis: Conclave Episode 1 (here) and Episode two includes the details on Monica's disappearance (here)

Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the Argentine who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights advocacy in 1980 (while the military was still in power), wrote on his website that Bergoglio did not work with the dictatorship, but had also not spoken out strongly against it. “I do not consider that Jorge Bergoglio was complicit in the dictatorship, but I believe he lacked the courage to join our struggle for human rights in the most difficult moments.” He wrote, voicing his hope that the new Pope “has the courage to defend the rights of the people in the face of the powerful without repeating the serious errors and even sins that the church committed.”

“Vatican Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Friday that the accusations were false and “reveal anti-clerical left-wing elements that are used to attack the Church…..”There has never been a concrete or credible accusation,” against the new pope, Lombardi added” (here and here)

Isabel's son Santiago del Carril interviewed the Nobel Laureate Esquivel recently on November 13, 2013 (here).

Santiago: Before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis you made comments calling his role in the last dictatorship “ambiguous” but later you supported him and said he wasn't complicit with the crimes of that era. What led to the change?

Esquivel: I never changed. (Horacio) Verbitsky accuses the Pope of being complicit with the dictatorship. I said that he wasn't complicit but also that he wasn't a bishop who actively spoke up against the dictatorship. Others were complicit. Bergoglio was a Jesuit leader, and very young —he didn't have access to the government. I learned that he would go to impoverished neighbourhoods to work with the people. This is what we need to value.

Santiago: If you compare the accusations of Bergoglio's complicity with General César Milani, the head of the army, they are similar because there is little evidence against them. Yet, you denounce Milani when he was promoted, and not Bergoglio. Why?

Esquivel: No, no, no—Milani is something else entirely. He is a military man. Bergoglio was chosen Pope in a very important moment for the Church, when people are fed up with it. We should at least wait a bit, to see what he does. But they immediately began attacking him. He cannot be accused of being complicit with the dictatorship. Maybe he committed errors like anyone else could have done, but complicity is something else. If there are accusations against Milani, they should be investigated. I don't know his entire history just like I don't know Bergogolio's.

Santiago: But you didn't say that with Bergoglio.

Esquivel: Look, Milani was part of the military structure, Bergoglio was not. I think he was a religious man who perhaps did not act with courage and I said that.

Santiago: Bergoglio was also part of a Church structure that was complicit with dictatorship.

Esquivel: If they freed Yorio and Jalics after six months, then he must have done something.

Santiago: Yet nothing was said about that until now, after he was named pope. It took 37 years for that to come to light.

Esquivel: Look there are many things that we know now. I did what I did, not only because of who Bergoglio is, a pastor of the church but also because he is fulfilling a mission. Up until now, he has changed a lot of things and is trying to reform the Church. If this man committed errors then it should be proven. But we should also try to protect the head of the Church, if not we will destroy everything.

Santiago: Some may find it difficult to understand how someone who kept quiet while thousands of Catholics were being killed in Argentina can be named pope? Don't you think that's a contradiction?

Esquivel: It was not necessarily like that. Nobody has the absolute truth. We are in a difficult moment. Now, we have this pope and if he made a mistake then he should make amends to the best of his ability.

The priest Yorio remembered one of his interrogator saying: We know you are not violent. You are not guerrillas. But you have gone to live with the poor. Living with the poor unites them. Uniting the poor is subversion.” (here)

Cardinal Bergoglio the new Pope Francis seems to have taken on the personality of having been the man of the slums working for the poor in Argentina. Mónica and the priests such as Yorio and Jalics and others, it seems to me, knew, the path of Jesus. In looking up articles I found one which wrote about Pope Francis visiting a shrine in Rome frequently. The new Pope Francis has a special devotion to St. Mónica whose shrine he visited recently in Rome and which he visited on his trips as Cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina (here).

Is it a crime to do nothing, and remain silent in the face of oppression even when one's entire reason for being is based on the supreme sacrifice for humanity? Questions persist about Bergoglio, and his role –about what he did or did not do during the Military Dictatorship of Argentina when he was a Jesuit provincial. “Perhaps the most damning thing that can be said about him is that he survived, and flourished, occupying a prominent position in the Argentine church at a time when its leaders worked hand in glove with one of the most brutal dictatorships of the 20th century.” Writes Nelson Jones in the NewStatesman (here) (more here)

“The priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, had come under suspicion for their work in the Bajo Flores slum district and for their association with a group of activists that included Mónica Mignone, daughter of a prominent lawyer, all of whom later disappeared into the regime's dungeons. The two Jesuits' work, and the liberation theology that inspired it, also attracted the critical attention of their superiors in the church, notably Bergoglio himself, who reportedly offered them a choice between leaving the slum or leaving their priestly ministry. Their license to minister was withdrawn by the then archbishop a week before they were seized. According to Verbitsky, whose book The Silence detailed the relationship between church and state in that dark period, the military took the church's action as a green light to have them arrested. What is undoubtedly the case is that there was a certain community of interest between the anti- communism of the military regime and the Church hierarchy's dislike of liberation theology.”

Both men were released in October 1976 after five months of interrogation and torture in the notorious Navy Mechanics School, ESMA (where Fr Von Wernach served as chaplain). In The Jesuit, a collection of conversations between Bergoglia and the writer Sergio Rubin, it is claimed that, far from denouncing Yorio and Jalics, Bergoglio warned the two priests of the danger they were in and later intervened behind the scenes to secure their release. But this is contested. Verbitsky quotes Yorio (who died in 2000) as telling him explicitly that “Bergoglio failed to warn us of danger waiting to happen” and that “I have no reason to think he did something for our freedom, but rather the opposite”.

As I learned more about Mónica's story I found many more articles including an article from May 14, 1995 in the Independent (here):

“Before dawn on 14 May 1976, five heavily armed men in army boots and civilian clothes broke into their Buenos Aires apartment building and hammered at their door. This is the Argentine army. We've come for Mónica Mignone,” they yelled. Mr Mignone, a former university rector, was forced to let them in and watch as they roused his 24-year-old daughter, a beautiful, raven-haired educational psychologist, from her bed and led her away. Like many other parents whose children were detained that day and over the next seven years, he never saw her again. An official inquiry reported 9,000 missing. Relatives speak of 30,000.”

“Nineteen years later, as a wall of military silence finally begins to crumble, Mr Mignone, now a leading human rights activist, believes he finally knows his daughter's fate. “She was almost certainly interrogated for a few days, drugged, carried on to a military plane and dumped alive over the Rio de la Plata or the Atlantic,” he said. Her crime? Apparently to have joined other young Catholics from a local church in helping to educate poor children in the Bajo Flores slums, a suspected breeding ground for leftist guerrillas.”

Since the day Isabel and I met and talked about Mónica I've been reading her father's book, Witness to the Truth, The Complicity of Church and Dictatorship in Argentina. In his book, Emilio Mignone, a devout Catholic himself, lays out the damning details of the complicity of the Catholic Church in Argentina and its Bishops and priests in helping and legitimizing the terror of the Dictatorship. In reading, Witness to the Truth and going through other articles about Mónica it is clear, that there is a connection drawn, between the nationalistic religiosity amongst the henchmen of the Dictators and their use of the Catholic Church in linking nation and State with religion and the church's complicity in this. The same kind of language is being used repeatedly today to justify state sanctioned human rights violation and to justify war, surveillance, illegal detentions, renditions, drone attacks and extra judicial killings.

Emilio F. Mignone died at the age of 76 in 1998. From the time his daughter disappeared he had devoted himself to finding her and had become the leading and respected campaigner for human rights. He was the founder and Director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies, in Argentina which was one of the organizations which devoted its efforts in documenting kidnappings, murders and torture by the military and trying to seek justice (here). He became a leading figure in creating the contemporary international human rights movement. Aryeh Neier, the former President of the Open Society Foundations and the founder and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch and the former Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, writes about Emilio Mignone in his book, “The International Human Rights Movement: A History”. Among other important details he writes about Emilio Mignone: “Many of those who knew him at the time said that after his daughter's disappearance there was nothing more the military could do to him that would deter him from pursuing investigations of their crimes.” (page 253 here)

Today, despite all the news and coverage on war, torture, interrogation, surveillance, black sights, rendition, the rising religious and nationalistic rhetoric and so forth people continue to say–“No, that is too far-fetched! Such things don't happen! Not here!”

Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, ESMA the Naval Mechanics in Buenos Aires where the interrogations and torture occurred and where Mónica Mignone was most probably taken was in the heart of the capital city surrounded by cafes, offices and people going about their daily work and lives. Right there in the heart of the city.

I talked to my own sister about Mónica. We were sharing the same mirror one morning—putting on our make-up. She looked at me and said: Remember 1976—we were connected to Argentina in June a month after Mónica was disappeared. A month after Mónica was abducted the World Cup took place in Argentina. Mónica would have been in an interrogation center with thousands of others very near the stadiums in Buenos Aires, where the football games were being played which the whole world was watching on live telecast. Thousands of foreign fans, dozens of foreign journalists and TV crews were in Buenos Aires then. The whole world was watching clips of Argentines protesting—alongside the games. And amongst all of that merry making and games— somewhere nearby were Mónica and thousands of others who had been disappeared. A year later it was Pakistan's turn July 5, 1977 and the Military coup supported by the same systems that supported the Dictators in Argentina and across South America and other parts of the world.” I looked at my sister in the mirror. I thought of Isabel and her sister. And I thought of Argentina and Pakistan.

During the conversations I had, while writing this article, I heard, though I have not had the chance to verify this yet, that several of the US embassy officers in Buenos Aires who were there during the dictatorship were then transferred to the Embassy in Pakistan. It would make sense wouldn't it? Given the pattern of diplomatic transfers and who went where in just the last ten years, yes, it would make sense: The toppling of a democratic government and the installing of a ruthless military dictator fomenting religious nationalism for his legitimacy in the war against the then bogeyman of choice, communism. Yes, the same blue print of destruction.

None of us knows what is happening in the buildings we pass by every day—what activities are being performed there, who might be incarcerated there or interrogated there, what is being done there. None of us knows what crime is being committed—whose sons and daughters are being destroyed in the name of faithfully safeguarding the fatherland, the motherland, the homeland. No one seems to know anything. No one seems to want to know anything. But if you look carefully enough on the streets and in places where you are—there is always someone there hardly visible, almost disappearing into the crowd but still trying to get your attention, trying to get the attention of passersby pleading with them to wake up, pay attention do something. Mónica and her family keep asking us to do something.

Is remaining silent a crime when one has knowledge of wrong doing and when one has the power to do something to stop it? Complicity and silence, it seems, are essential skills and experience for so called leaders in a world of surveillance and security.

In the abduction and disappearance of Mónica, an intricate network of complicity, a willingness to remain silent, played an essential role. Power, legitimized by a definition of morality and family values, kept in place by violence and surveillance and enhanced by technology, technicians, media, clergy and even medical doctors, all played a role, just like they do today.

Mónica lives in all those who know about her. Mónica is part of those who know the difference between faith and professing faith. Mónica cannot be disappeared because her family has refused to remain silent. They have refused to let go of their pursuit to uncover the reasons for her disappearance and because of their steadfast efforts to bring to justice those military officers who are still alive. The world and the people who believe in justice and have faith in humanity will continue to think about her as a daughter, sister, aunt and as a person who tried to empower the poor. Mónica will never disappear. When we look in the mirror we should all think of Mónica.

Other writing by Maniza Naqvi (here)