It’s June of 1978, and the FIFA World Cup hosted by Argentina has just finished. The military government is having a reception in honor of the country winning the trophy after beating the Netherlands in the final. Although no press is allowed, Dutch journalist Frits Jelle Barend manages to slip in, posing as a player from his national team.
Without drawing attention, he walks right up to one of the most sinister figures in Argentine history, Military Junta president Jorge Rafael Videla. He introduces himself as a journalist and starts asking questions.
“Congratulations on the World Cup, Mr. Videla”.
“Where are the disappeared people?”
“Pardon me? Those are lies.”
“They are not; I spoke with the ‘crazy mothers.’”
The interview was cut shortly after. “Crazy mothers” was what the military called the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who were denouncing the disappearance of their children and relatives under the dictatorship that had come into power after the 1976 coup and was ravishing the country.
Barend, who had been sent by a Dutch magazine to investigate the political situation under the guise of covering the World Cup, ran out of the building with photographer Bert Nienhuis, after military officers kicked them out of the reception. Barend had already been sending his dispatches under a different name, but this time he decided it was time to leave the country.
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Forty-five years after those events, Barend was back in Argentina this week along with fellow Dutch journalist Jan Van der Putten to speak about their experience reporting during the dictatorship. Van der Putten also came to cover the 1978 World Cup and was the first to run a televised interview with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo on the Dutch public TV channel VARA.
The Anne Frank Center and the Argentine government’s Human Rights Secretariat invited both of them to recognize the invaluable role they played in telling the world about the horrors of the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.
“[When there’s a World Cup], journalists have to talk about what’s going on outside the stadium, not just sports,” Barend said in a meeting with journalists on Tuesday, adding that, had it not been for the tournament, “nothing of what was happening in Argentina would have been known.”
Barend and Van der Putten were both given the same specific assignment before traveling to Argentina: to interview the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. And although they were uneasy about the risks involved, they both accepted. “It was our duty,” they agreed.
The Dutch journalists were unfortunately unable to get together with the now elderly mothers at Plaza de Mayo, but their admiration for the women has not diminished in the four-plus decades since they last saw them.
“They’re heroes,” says Barend.
A historic interview and a desperate plea
Van der Putten’s interview with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in 1978 was shown during the meeting. Although the dictatorship’s crimes are well known and documented, the footage of the mothers still makes your blood run cold.
He approached them as they made their rounds every Thursday in front of the Casa Rosada and heard their stories. One of them told him she had been tortured and asked to give up her son. Another said that her pregnant daughter had been kidnapped and that she didn’t even know if her grandchild was born. Their pleas are heartbreaking and direct.
“We want our children back. We want them to tell us where they are. Why won’t they tell us if they are alive or if they are dead? […] We don’t know where else to go. Please help us. Help us.”
Van der Putten and Barend obliged in the only way they could. They had their interviews travel across the world in order to spread the word. In Argentina, news outlets — except for the Buenos Aires Herald — were not reporting about the disappearances, either because they supported the dictatorship or because they were being threatened.
Barend interviewed the Mothers at the exact same moment the 1978 World Cup opening ceremony was taking place in River Plate stadium. There was no one in the Plaza de Mayo that Thursday. However, around 30 mothers appeared around 4 p.m. as always to walk around in circles with white handkerchiefs on their heads.
The conversation only lasted for a few minutes — “the most emotional five minutes of my life,” Barend recalls — before some men approached them and started calling the women whores, pushing the reporter away. Just like they did with Van der Putten, the mothers asked for help.
“Please, write [about this],” they pleaded.
The journalists’ work did not go unnoticed by the military authorities. Barend was warned that his interview with the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo could bring him problems, and Van der Putten was threatened. He told the Dutch authorities about the threats, and they assured him that if anything happened to them, the final match between Argentina and the Netherlands would be suspended. They remained unharmed and left the country as soon as they could after the World Cup ended.
Van der Putten had lived in Argentina previously but left a few months after the March 24 coup of 1976. He had dinner with two close friends the night before his departure and advised them to also consider exile. A couple of days later, in the Netherlands, he read in a newspaper that both had disappeared. They were never seen again.
Although the military dictatorship ended in 1983 and Argentina is celebrating 40 years of uninterrupted democracy this year, Van der Putten finds the current political context unnerving.
“My first reaction [after arriving in Argentina] was that people haven’t learned anything from the past,” he told the Herald on Tuesday. “You have democracy now, but democracy is so vulnerable and can be emptied from the inside.”
Argentina is holding presidential elections on October 22. Far-right economist Javier Milei, who is a denialist of state terrorism, came in first in the August primaries with almost 30% of the vote. “Everyone can participate [in elections], but those who want to end or undermine democracy from the inside have to be fought,” the journalist said.
For Van der Putten, the role of journalists continues to be the same as it was in 1978: to defend democracy as the better form of government and warn about those who want to destroy it.
“The consequences of that are nefarious. Let us learn from History, please.”
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