Closure for a Sister Disappeared

Novelist Daniel Loedel recounts the story of his older half-sister Isabel, who was disappeared in Argentina during the Dirty War, “the period from 1976 to 1983 in which the U.S.-backed military dictatorship kidnapped and killed tens of thousands of supposed dissidents in the name of fighting off communism.” In this harrowing piece at The Atlantic, Loedel seeks closure for a half-sibling he never knew, having been born 10 years after her death.

Here we must pull back the curtain, listen to what’s behind the silence. First, the cultural reasons: Although Argentina’s military dictatorship technically lasted only seven years, from 1976 to 1983, they were the bloodiest in the nation’s history, and few except the junta leaders themselves were put in prison. For years, people continued to encounter their former torturers at bus stations, their rapists in cafés. For years, the armed forces maintained power at a distance, with complete immunity. For years, there were no formal funerals for the disappeared.

The report from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team included 20 photos of my half sister’s bones—nearly as many photos as I had ever seen of Isabel herself.

The ones of the bones punctured by bullets—her rib, her pelvis, her humerus—did not move me as much as those of her skull. It was so old-looking, like one of those prehistoric craniums of Homo sapiens, the nose bashed in, some of the teeth missing, that earthen coloring. The skull had lain in a common grave, untouched for more than 30 years, before being taken to a lab, where it remained officially unidentified for about another 10. The sight of it destroyed me. In all the photos I had seen, Isabel looked incredibly young, with a cherubic beauty—round cheeks, light hair, searching blue eyes. She had been murdered and disappeared by the military dictatorship in Argentina in January 1978, when she was just 22. Staring at those photos of her skeleton in March 2018, I was eight years older than she ever had been. Never before had I quite grasped how much time she hadn’t gotten to live, to age and grow old, until I saw her bones, and realized they had been aging without the rest of her.

But no one told me what she was like, or who she’d been besides my sister. I gathered that she was rebellious, brave, idealistic. But the only attribute I comprehended with any sort of reality was: disappeared. My sister’s gone-ness, the silence around her, was so absolute that I barely dared to peek any further behind that curtain than my father did.

When he and I finally had an extended conversation about Isabel—whom I’d chosen somewhat flippantly as the subject for my college-application essay, as a way of conveying my own desire to do good in the world—I got the impression that she’d been killed for doing things like tagging walls and distributing political pamphlets. But Enrique later told me she was in fact one of the Dirty War’s rarer victims: She’d been in the armed resistance, living in hiding, with weapons in her home.

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