On Tuesday, Lilia Jons de Orfano, co-founder of the groundbreaking human rights group Families of the Disappeared and Detained for Political Reasons, one of the first organizations to publicly call attention to the atrocities of the brutal Argentine dictatorship, died at the age of 88.
In 1976 de Orfano, along with her husband and several other families, founded the first human rights group in Argentina to publicly call for the release and location of estimated 30, 000 activists kidnapped and murdered by successive right-wing military dictatorships between 1976 and 1983.
De Orfano and her group also played a key role in supporting the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, founded several months later in 1977. In a statement on Tuesday the Grandmothers expressed their “sorrow” at her passing saying she “lived a life dedicated to the struggle for justice.”
Pulled out of a convent at age 15 to support her family by working as a cook in a wealthy household, by 1974 de Orfano, her husband, and two children, were political activists and organizers for the Authentic Peronist Party, formed as part of the initial resistance to the newly emerging right-wing paramilitary Argentine Anticommunist Alliance.
In an interview 2012 interview with Pagina 12, she recalled the challenges facing left-wing activists during the early days of the resistance. “It wasn’t easy, and after a while things became really ugly. So ugly that the kids could no longer live at home for security. The rule was that parents and friends couldn’t know where they were staying.”
However on Aug. 3, 1976, on a rare night at home, U.S. backed military police stormed their house and took de Orfano, her husband Lucas, and their eldest son Daniel, to the infamous federal detention center.
“We were there 15 days. Everything was so dark and I couldn’t tell day from night. We could hear them shouting at my son. A friend from the Communist Party who was captured along with us told us that he had been with Daniel, that they had been tortured separately,” she remembered.
Within a month after she and her husband were released, they helped found the Families of the Disappeared and Detained for Political Reasons, looking to join with others to find missing and detained family members.
“We voted on the name at an assembly because there were several families that didn’t want to put ‘for Political Reasons.’ We voted and we won, and then began the struggle,” she said. “We fought without rest. In [the Families of the Disappeared] we were very horizontal, without authoritarianism, or dominant personalities,” she added.
Two months later, on Dec. 2, 1976, police kidnapped her second and youngest son, Guillermo. Neither of her children was ever found.
“I remember when I went alone to the Ministry of the Interior [to look for my sons]. It was the mouth of a wolf. Going in there was like entering hell, and you felt like you might not leave,” she recalled.Despite the constant dangers- the dictatorship tried to kill her and her husband with a car bomb- she was adamant about her lifelong struggle for justice and resistance to state terrorism, “I never had fear, no terror, no, no, no, because what I asked for was just.”