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June 20, 2011

The Daughter of the Disappeared

When Victoria Donda learned that her supposed father was accused of being a notorious torturer in Argentina and that her true parents were political prisoners, she soon unraveled a web of family secrets and lies.

victoria donda

Victoria Donda, 33, in Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, where rights groups have lobbied for victims of Argentina's Dirty War since the 1970s.

Photo Credit: Hernan Zenteno

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On a cold, gray August day in 2003, Victoria Donda, a 26-year-old law student, got a call from her friend Isaac. "We need to meet. It's urgent," he said. The petite Argentine was having a hellish week. Her father had tried to kill himself and now lay comatose with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. She had barely left his side since, even to shower or eat. Now, her head spinning from lack of sleep, her dark eyes swollen and red from crying, Victoria raced from the hospital to a nearby café to meet Isaac.

Earlier that week, the Argentine government had publicized allegations that her father, along with other ex-military officers, had taken part in Argentina's military dictatorship in the 1970s. He was accused of interrogating and torturing prisoners; he'd tried to commit suicide the night the news broke. Entering the café and sliding into a seat by the window, Victoria desperately hoped that Isaac, a friend from her volunteer work, would tell her the charges had been a huge mistake. Instead, he just looked at her, his eyes welling up behind his thick glasses.

"Negrita," he said, using a term of endearment for the black-haired Victoria, "you are the daughter of a couple murdered during the dictatorship. The people who raised you aren't your parents," he continued. She'd been kidnapped, and her identity had been changed at birth.

Victoria froze. She knew about the "children of the disappeared" — everyone in Argentina did. During the country's horrific military regime, from 1976 to 1983, thousands of ordinary people were killed, tortured, and "disappeared." The government claimed they were dangerous dissidents, but many of the victims were idealistic students and activists, and some of the women were pregnant. Their infants, delivered in jail, were stolen and given to conservative citizens who supported the dictatorship. These new "parents" raised the babies as their own. Now, 20 years after the end of the regime, humanitarian groups were trying to reunite the children of the disappeared with their biological families. At human-rights rallies, Victoria, a budding activist, had stood shoulder to shoulder with women whose pregnant daughters had been jailed. Distraught, decades later, these women were still searching for their grandchildren. She'd never dreamed she might be one of them.

Victoria grew up as Analía Azic, the daughter of Juan Antonio Azic, a retired coast guard officer turned grocer, and Esther Abrego, a housewife, in a middle-class suburb of Buenos Aires. An outspoken tomboy who was fiercely protective of her younger sister, Carla, and her sickly mother, Victoria was often sent home from Catholic school for talking back to the nuns. But her father never got angry: She was his "little princess." She loved spending the weekends selling apples and zucchini with him at his grocery store.

"I trusted my father like any daughter would, but we were especially close," she says now, sipping maté, a traditional South American tea, from a wooden gourd on the couch in her Buenos Aires apartment. Her mother, who loved to sew, made many of her clothes, including a favorite pink-and-white sundress. Victoria's childhood was idyllic.

By 26, she was studying law at the University of Buenos Aires, the path her father had chosen for her. Despite her father's conservative politics, Victoria was involved in liberal causes, spending hours volunteering in Buenos Aires' poorest slums and living in an abandoned bank building where she'd helped open a cultural center. Appalled that their daughter was barely eating and bathing in cold water, her parents bought her an electric heater and insisted she come home twice a week for dinner.

One Thursday in late July 2003, when Victoria was home for a family meal, her father was uncharacteristically distant. She went to his bedroom to check on him and found him pacing, changing clothes distractedly. At 10 p.m., he left the house. Though her mother and sister went to bed, Victoria stayed up, watching TV. At 1 a.m., her father called and gave her a number, asking her to call in one hour. When she did, a stranger answered the phone.

"Your father is in the hospital," he said. "He just shot himself."

As she later learned, he had driven to the Buenos Aires clinic where her mother had spent months in treatment for pancreatitis, and sat down on a bench before a statue of the Virgin Stella Maris, patron saint of the naval forces. Her mother had prayed to that statue, offering a braid of her long blonde hair in exchange for recovery. Sitting before it, Victoria's father put a pistol into his mouth and pulled the trigger. The bullet had missed his brain but obliterated his nose, mouth, tongue, and jaw.

Victoria woke her sister and mother, and the family rushed to the Buenos Aires Naval Hospital where he'd been admitted. Bursting into her father's room, she gasped: He had no face. The bullet had left him disfigured and unconscious, but alive.

Reeling, Victoria fled her father's bedside and ran into the waiting room. Her first concern was for her mother, she remembers now. "I didn't cry. I just tried to explain to her what had happened." Then she saw her father's name in bright red headlines scrolling across the TV screen. Suddenly the suicide attempt made sense. He was on a list, issued by the Spanish government, of four dozen Argentine ex-military men accused of torturing and murdering civilians during the military regime. Argentina was roiling politically — the new president was trying to annul laws protecting the officers. The effort was controversial; years after the dictatorship, most of the men had resumed normal lives. Now Spain was demanding they face charges for human-rights crimes against Spanish citizens.

Victoria couldn't think straight. Her father's coast guard service wasn't something the family discussed — she'd never dreamed it was linked to the military or the country's decades-old dictatorship. Suddenly, the man she'd grown up with — who'd donated furniture to her causes and looked the other way when she'd come in past curfew — was accused of torturing and electrocuting prisoners. Survivors said he'd threatened to throw their children against the wall or electrocute them during interrogations. How could this be the person who, when she'd put a poster of her idol, Che Guevara, on her bedroom door, calmly asked her to at least move it out of sight? The idea was horrifying; she pushed it away.

"I couldn't deal with his name being up there," she says. "I remember thinking, I'm going to have to stop being an activist." But that didn't matter. His survival — and her family's — did. As her mother broke down in tears in the waiting room, Victoria decided she would move back home. Over the next few days, the women took turns spending hours at her father's bedside, going without sleep, hoping he would open his eyes.

At the same time, unbeknownst to Victoria, the news about her father had furthered a long-running, secret investigation into her past by human-rights workers. Throughout her childhood, questions had swirled around her identity. After she arrived home, in 1977, a neighbor — knowing the parents to be infertile, and connecting the dots with Victoria's "father's" ties to the military — tipped off a human-rights group.

Meanwhile, a female prisoner who'd been present at Victoria's birth came forward. She described the labor, which took place in a filthy room inside the Naval Mechanics School, a notorious detention center — Victoria's mother had been in chains. Minutes after the birth, the new mother and the prisoner pierced the baby's ears with blue surgical thread. If she were released from prison one day, Victoria's mother hoped to use it to find her daughter in an orphanage. A baby with blue thread in her earlobes had later been seen by another witness in Buenos Aires. Ever since, rights workers had been investigating, interviewing friends and relatives of Victoria's birth family.

In late 2002, the rights workers set up a meeting with Victoria herself, posing as sociology students interested in her cultural center. They compared her appearance to pictures of her suspected biological parents, political activists who'd been disappeared in 1977. The resemblance was uncanny. Then, the week after Victoria's father's suicide attempt, they'd contacted Isaac through Argentina's human-rights community and told him what they believed: Analía Azic was actually Victoria Donda, who'd been seized from her mother's arms at just 15 days old.

Victoria remembers almost nothing from that first conversation with Isaac. "I wanted to erase it," she says. But one image remains: "The window was all steamed up. Isaac sat in front of me, crying, taking off his glasses and cleaning them with napkins."

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