The Argentinian government has sent hundreds of DNA testing kits to its consulates around the world in a groundbreaking effort to put names to unidentified victims murdered in the “Dirty War” waged by the brutal military dictatorship four decades ago.
Last month, the Argentinian authorities, in collaboration with the National Commission for the Right to Identity, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo movement and investigators from the Argentinian Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), launched its international Right to Identity campaign, committed to putting a name to every woman, man and child killed by the military junta in Argentina in the 1970s and early 80s.
After the 1976 coup, Argentina’s military set about systematically crushing any potential opposition, and eventually “disappeared” and murdered 30,000 people, almost all of them civilian, unarmed non-combatants.
The task of identifying victims of the dictatorship is a herculean one, starting with discovering where the military buried the bodies of their victims.
After the return of democracy it was discovered that many victims were hidden in mass unmarked graves, some in municipal cemeteries. Others washed up on Argentina’s beaches after they were drugged and thrown into the Atlantic Ocean from aircraft in macabre “death flights” organised by the military.
Last year, the EAAF, which was nominated for the Nobel peace prize in 2020, started a campaign to identify some 600 remains recovered in the years after the war and believed to be people “disappeared” by the junta. However, their efforts have been thwarted by missing genetic data.
Now the search for the missing families has been extended internationally with the government instructing Argentinian embassies and consulates around the world to help find missing relatives who could supply DNA to assist with the identification.
The first DNA collection kits arrived two weeks ago at the Argentinian consulate general in Rome.
It is hoped that testing in Italy will reveal many of the missing identities. Hundreds of thousands of Italians emigrated to Argentina in the late 19th century and early 20th century and almost 700,000 Argentinians hold dual citizenship. Many Italians also travelled to Argentina during the military dictatorship to join the resistance against the far-right regime. In October 1982, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published a list of 297 Italians aged 17 to 29 who disappeared while in Argentina.
Maco Somigliana, who has been a member of the EAAF team since 1987, said: “We’ve been able to identify around 1,000 remains of victims of Argentina’s dictatorship. There are 75 Italians reported as kidnapped during the dictatorship and we’ve been able to positively identify five of them so far.”
The Guardian has seen an official list of 45 desaparecidos of Italian origin, who have yet to be identified. The search for their families, which has already started, will be led by two Argentinian consulates in Italy, which will collect DNA in Italy, Albania, Malta and San Marino.
Those who believe they may be relatives of desaparecidos will have to give a blood sample so the mitochondrial DNA can be traced. The drop of blood, taken and collected in a special container, will then be sent on a diplomatic flight to Córdoba in Argentina, where the EAAF forensic laboratory is based.
Ana de la Paz Tito, Argentina’s consul general in Rome, said: “With the help of science, Argentina has strengthened its path towards the search for truth. Bones can speak. Science can make bones talk.
“The right to identify the bodies of the desaparecidos, their children, is a fundamental right, such as freedom, health, work and education. This right, in my country, had been violated by the state itself. And that tragedy pushes us Argentinians, today, to bring truth to those victims and their families. Because the truth helps us increase our collective memory and avoid the repetition of these tragedies.”
Once the remains have been identified, they will be returned to their families. This procedure is free and confidential and there will be financial compensation for relatives of the victims.
Jorge Ithurburu, president of the Rome-based human rights organisation 24 Marzo, which takes its name from the date of the coup, said: “It is important to identify these people – burial is a right for all – but it is also a way to allow relatives, who have lived for decades in a sort of limbo, to mourn their loved one.
“The idea is to ensure these people stop being desaparecidos and that we give them a name, give them justice and that finally we are able to find out the cause of their death,” he said.
Finding and identifying the bodies is a task that requires patience. Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, a group of mothers of the “disappeared” who confronted the military junta demanding to know the fate of their children, was herself kidnapped and then thrown into the Atlantic in December 1977. Villaflor’s body washed up on a faraway beach shortly afterwards and was hidden by local police in an unmarked grave. It was not until 2003 that Villaflor’s murder was certified after Somigliana’s team found where the police had secretly buried her.
The EAAF have since applied the skills they acquired in Argentina elsewhere, identifying victims of summary executions and genocide around the world, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Africa, Mexico and Asia, including the identification of the body of Che Guevara, the Cuban-Argentinian revolutionary, in Bolivia. They also participated in the case of the 43 students massacred in 2014 in Mexico’s drug war at the request of the families of thevictims.
Through the dim forest, a slow procession of hundreds of people largely dressed in white, some in a trance, others singing fervently, heads towards the Osun River. As they have every August for 700 years, Yoruba people gather here at the Osun-Osogbo sacred grove, a Unesco world heritage site in south-west Nigeria, for an ancient festival celebrating their traditional spirituality.
Yoruba religious practitioners, adorned with cowrie shells, some with crosses or Islamic beads, pray for protection and offer sacrifices. In a region where Christianity and Islam are dominant, Yoruba traditions have often been cast as demonic – a legacy of colonial violence against Indigenous faiths – but are practised by a devout minority and hold a wide significance for people of varying faiths.
Recent years have seen a growing appreciation of Yoruba spirituality among the younger generation, with more young people becoming practitioners and Ifá priests.
The two-week Osun festival attracts visitors from across the Yoruba-dominated south-west, along with diasporas from South America and the Caribbean, as well as tourists. Osun, the goddess of the river, is said to have appeared to an ancient warrior, instructing him to bring Yoruba people out of famine, into safety in Osogbo city. In return, they would offer a yearly festival.
Osunnike Ogundele, 53, wears a shimmering green and gold lace dress, her hair braided with cowrie shells. “I’ve been here all my life,” she says, explaining her mother’s influence, and her own guidance for her children.
“My fondest memories of the grove are our mothers before us who passed on the knowledge we have now. There was so much to learn from just observing them and we are trying our best to pass this on to our daughters too,” she says. “Osun answers all prayers, no one cries to her without leaving with a smile.”
Osunniti Sikiru, 32, a Muslim and Osun priestess, is one of a number of custodians of the grove. She describes how, for Yoruba people, cultural heritage should be understood as predating the advent of Abrahamic religion in the region.
“Most of our forefathers weren’t Christians or Muslims,” she says. “There’s a big misconception that as a Muslim one can’t combine it with Osun worship. Water is very symbolic in Islam and Osun worship, both emphasise purity. I am still a practising Muslim, I still pray five times a day, my son is named Ibrahim, but Osun worship precedes most religions in Yoruba land.”
Princess Adeola Iya Osun, 47, another priestess, chimes in. “One of my daughters is a pastor and my son actively goes to the church, but what I try to preach is a symbiotic relationship between faiths.”
There have been concerns that the Osun River, seen as having healing powers, has been contaminated, sparking fears for the health of the worshippers who wash and drink here. Local media investigations allegedly found dangerous levels of lead, lithium, aluminium and iron, caused by the activities of artisanal miners and large companies.
Last year, pictures of the polluted river caused uproar and demands for government action. A warning by the state authorities not to drink from the river came on the penultimate day of this year’s festival, sparking further anger. Some chose to drink anyway, knowing the river was contaminated, believing they would be protected from ill-health.
Pollution is a serious worry for those attempting to maintain the integrity of the grove and its surroundings.
A committee of custodians leads these efforts, clearing the litter, while preserving the architecture and stone carvings.
On the final day of the festival, visitors crowd the banks of the river to meet priests and priestesses for consultation and prayers. Baskets are laid out full of kola nuts, fruits and vegetables.
In a trance, a priestess bellows praises to the goddess, then shares messages and warnings. As devotees arrive for prayers, testimonies are shared by people who have attended for several years.
Iya Osun’s parents had challenges having children, she says. “My mother came to pray to Osun for a child. I’m a result of that answered prayer.”
As the festival ends, the crowds leave the grove and the dense forest, their prayers made, hoping to return next year with testimonies of their own.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea do not apply to the Donbas republics, Director of the Department of International Organizations at the Russian Foreign Ministry Pyotr Ilyichev said in an interview with Sputnik.
Earlier, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, said the republic is negotiating with Pyongyang on the arrival of builders from North Korea. In July, North Korea recognized the independence of the DPR and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR).
“The recruitment of labor from North Korea is subject to international restrictions established by UN Security Council resolutions. However, it must be taken into account that they apply to the member states of the world organization, which the people’s republics of Donbas are not,” Ilyichev said.
He said Russia will not force Donbas and North Korea to avoid cooperation.
The poliovirus is circulating again in the West. A virus that was on the way to global eradication has been detected in recent months in the wastewater of New York and London. This is not unusual, since it can appear in the fecal remains of vaccinated people with the attenuated pathogen. What’s different now is that the poliovirus – which causes the infectious disease polio – has been recorded in an adult in the United States, something that has not happened for a decade, and that samples from the United Kingdom suggest there is local transmission of the disease.
How did the virus get there? To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the two types of vaccines that are used against polio. In countries where transmission is eradicated, an intramuscular vaccine is used. This contains the inactive virus, which is enough to prevent it from spreading in an environment where the pathogen is no longer circulating in the wild and most of the population is vaccinated. The second type of vaccine is made up of oral drops with a live attenuated virus, which is used in countries where polio continues to circulate. It produces antibodies in the blood, as well as the oral and intestinal mucosa. “With this vaccine, the immunized person would not develop the disease nor would they be able to infect others if they become infected with the wild virus,” explain researchers José Jiménez and Ana María Ortega-Prieto, from King’s College London, in an article in The Conversation.
The only two countries where polio remains endemic are Pakistan and Afghanistan, with 12 cases and one so far this year, respectively. Normally, when polio is detected in fecal remains in the wastewater, it comes from the excretion of people from these countries, which is not a major problem. What has happened now is that the virus is not just being detected in wastewater, it’s infecting people.
It’s still not fully confirmed that there is local circulation in London, but the European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) has warned: “The poliovirus levels and the genetic diversity among the isolates suggests some level of virus transmission both in the areas where positive samples were found and in adjacent ones.”
Local circulation has been confirmed in New York, where one adult has been paralyzed due to the virus. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this case, is just “the tip of the iceberg.” “There are a number of individuals in the community that have been infected with poliovirus,” Dr. José Romero, from the CDC, told news network CNN. “The spread is always a possibility because the spread is going to be silent.”
As was seen during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a case is detected and its origin is unknown, it is normally a sign of uncontrolled transmission. “For every one case of paralytic polio identified, hundreds more may be undetected,” said State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett in a statement. This is partly due to the fact that most people who contract the poliovirus are asymptomatic. Only in about 1% of cases does the virus cause problems: if it enters the central nervous system, it can cause paralysis and muscle atrophy.
What are the consequences of these outbreaks? In both London and New York, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of their respective countries, meaning there is an elevated risk for children, who mainly affected by this disease. In London, authorities have already launched a vaccination campaign to offer booster doses to one million children between the ages of one and nine.
The road to polio eradication
The spread of polio is limited, at least in countries with high vaccination coverage. But these recent cases show that the virus still presents a risk and completely eradicating it is a complicated task, even if it seemed within reach.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988 with the aim of eradicating polio just as smallpox has been eradicated. In general terms, the program has been a success: the number of polio cases worldwide have dropped 99% since its creation.
Only Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Islamic fundamentalism makes vaccination campaigns difficult, report a few cases each year. And Nigeria, the other country where there is wild poliovirus (i.e. not the virus is transmitted by the attenuated vaccines), has not reported a single case since 2016.
The secret to this achievement is mass vaccination: first with the oral vaccine and then, when the country is already free of the disease, with the vaccine given by injection. Keeping vaccination levels high is key to curbing the virus.
According to UNICEF data, global vaccination levels dropped between 2019 and 2021 by 5%. In other words, 25 million children stopped receiving their doses. Vaccination rates are the lowest they have been in the last 30 years: 81% for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, which are considered a good indicator for other conditions. This means it is likely that polio coverage is at similarly low levels.