Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

A Woman of Valor

During Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983), thousands of opponents to the military rulers were killed or “made to disappear,” a euphemism for those whose fate was unknown but who were almost certainly killed. The recent news that between 600-700 human remains are still to be identified shows the persisting echoes of a tragic period in Argentina’s history.

One of the biggest paradoxes I’ve encountered in my life, as a physician specializing in international public health and as a human rights activist, is the behavior of some of my medical colleagues, specifically those doctors and paramedical personnel, including psychologists, who aided and participated in acts of torture during that war. Such actions can range from monitoring a prisoner’s state of health to determining how much more torture can continue without compromising the prisoner’s life or determining the most effective forms of psychological torture.

One case that I knew closely is that of Adriana Calvo de Laborde, an Argentine physicist who in 1977 had been imprisoned by the military when she was six and a half months pregnant. At that time, Calvo was a teacher and researcher at the Faculty of Exact Sciences of La Plata, in Buenos Aires Province.

I had a talk with her in Buenos Aires, years after she was released. We were sitting in a cafe in Palermo, on a beautiful autumn day, which contrasted remarkably with her story. Calvo told me of the role that Dr. Jorge A. Bergés, a physician in the police department, had had in her mistreatment. She told me that despite the brutality with which she had been treated, she had been luckier than most of her companions.

“I was in jail when my daughter Teresa was born,” Calvo told me. “The day it happened, on April 15, 1977, despite the cold, the fear, the pain that I was enduring, and also despite the dirt around me, I had felt the imperative need to wash. This was ridiculous since I had already been in prison for more than two months and during all that time I had not even been able to take a shower. ”

“That day, however, I took off my dress and started sewing it. Then, I washed my underwear and began trying to remove the hairs from my legs. Since I did not have the means to do it right, I scratched my fingers against the concrete walls of the cell so that they could be quite rough to do so. As soon as I finished, I began to have labor pains. ”

Before giving birth to her baby, Calvo had been sharing his cell with other women who, seeing her in great pain, called the service guard. The guard refused to come for a long time, but five hours after the contractions began they took her and put her, blindfolded and with her hands tied behind her back, in the backseat of a car. The police took her to the province of Buenos Aires, where Dr. Bergés was working at that time.

“In the middle of the trip I again had painful contractions, and the police stopped the car on a side of the road. There, despite having my hands tied behind my back, I gave birth to Teresa.”

“In the back of the car, sitting next to me, was a woman named Lucrecia, who had been collaborating with the police. She tried to help me, but she was so nervous that instead of helping me she hurt me with her nails. Lucrecia asked the men sitting in the front of the car to give her a piece of cloth with which they tied my umbilical cord, but they could not cut it.”

“When I was given Teresa, I could not hold her in my hands, since I still had my arms tied behind my back, so I put her, crying, between my legs on the floor of the car. When we arrived at our destination, it was late at night and it was very cold. Despite that, I stayed in the car for almost an hour until Bergés was willing to see me.

“Bergés cut the umbilical cord and ordered the policemen to take me inside the building. They took me up the stairs to a room where there was a stretcher. At that moment, Bergés took the blindfold from me and said: ‘Now you do not need this.’ ”

“Then he asked me to lie on the stretcher, and he gave me an injection. He asked the policemen for a bowl of water and a brush and made me clean the stretcher and the floor while my baby, naked and dirty with meconium, was crying on a table with white tiles. ”

“I washed, and then they gave me my girl, whom I also cleaned. Meanwhile, Bergés was smoking in silence while the men who were with him insulted me. At one point I could not stand their insults any longer, I lost my temper, and I insulted them back.”

“Shortly after, they left me alone with my daughter. Since I had been incarcerated it was the first time that I could sleep in a bed with a mattress and a blanket. I slept soundly until I was awakened by the sound of my baby trying to get rid of secretions in her nose, something that made me feel tremendously guilty. At dawn, I was taken to a cell where I saw friends I had not seen in a while. ”

“I spent 13 days without medication, without clothes, without soap. The only thing I had – but the most important – was the solidarity and the help of my companions. They gave us food only once every three days, but always one of my cellmates gave me half their ration.”

“The guards wanted to take my daughter away but I did not let them do it. I had to fight like a lioness not to let them take her away from me. I put myself in a corner of the cell with Teresa and my companions formed a human wall to protect me while shouting at loudly at the guards. Finally, Teresa stayed with me. ”

“I had lost all hope of being released when on April 28, 1977, a group of men arrived in a car and, together with my daughter, they left us in the area of ​​Témperley, province of Buenos Aires, near my parents’ house. ”

After her release, Calvo became an ardent defender of human rights in Argentina, and on several occasions she denounced the participation of Dr. Bergés in the torture of the detainees. Adriana Calvo de Laborde was one of the first survivors of the clandestine detention centers when she testified against the military in the trial of the Military Juntas in 1985.

In 2004, Dr. Jorge A. Bergés was sentenced to seven years in prison. The testimony of Mrs. Calvo de Laborde was fundamental in the conviction of Dr. Bergés.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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