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Argentines question past after stolen grandson found

Story of the Argentine activist who found her grandson 36 years after he was taken by the military regime has led many others to question their identity.

BUENOS AIRES: The story of the Argentine activist who found her grandson 36 years after he was taken by the military regime has revived deep emotions for many, and caused others to question their identity.

The scenes of 83-year-old Estela Carlotto hugging her long-lost grandson for the first time warmed hearts across Argentina this week, but also prompted new soul searching in a country still looking for nearly 400 other babies taken from political prisoners during the brutal 1976-1983 dictatorship.

The rights group Carlotto leads, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, says it has received such a large influx of calls that phone lines at its offices around the country have been clogged.

Calls from people seeking information on DNA testing or reporting suspicious cases have increased from an average of 15 a day to 300 since Carlotto learned Tuesday that a man raised under the name Ignacio Hurban was the baby her daughter gave birth to in a secret regime prison 36 years ago. "The number of calls shot up in an extraordinary way," secretary Marisa Salton told AFP.

Hurban, whose mother named him Guido Montoya Carlotto, according to survivors who were jailed with her, is the 114th of the estimated 500 missing babies to be found. As he began sorting through the complicated aftermath of the discovery, others who have gone through the experience described the long and difficult -- but also liberating -- process of reconstructing their identity.

"I had conflicting emotions when I got the results of the genetic testing in 2004," said 37-year-old Victoria Donda, who is today a member of Congress. Donda was raised by a military family after her mother, a leftist activist "disappeared" by the regime, gave birth to her in a secret detention centre.

The fallout for both the family that raised her and her biological family has been enormous. In a tragic twist, her biological uncle, a former navy officer, is suspected of ordering the kidnapping and killing of his own brother and sister-in-law. He is now serving a life prison sentence for crimes committed at the prison where Donda was born.

"The process of rebuilding is something that lasts the rest of your life," Donda told AFP. "There's a lot of pain, but the overriding feeling is that you're free to choose."

'LIVED A GIANT LIE'

Unlike Donda, Pedro Sandoval did not learn his true identity by choice. Born in late 1977 in a Buenos Aires prison camp, he was taken from his mother and registered as the child of a military policeman and his wife at three months old. His DNA test was ordered by a court after the man he knew as his father became the target of a government investigation that ultimately saw him convicted of kidnapping in 2008.

"That verdict was very liberating.... They removed the final blindfold," said Sandoval, who was raised as Alejandro Rei. "The unknown always causes fear, but it was worth it to open that door and reconstruct my story and my parents' story. I discovered I had a family that was searching for me," he told AFP. "For 26 years, everything I lived was a giant lie."

Scores of missing children have been found since the first reunions in the 1980s. But no two cases are alike, said psychologist Alicia Stolkiner, who coordinates a support team for the National Commission for the Right to Identity. "Some people had a difficult childhood and were mistreated. Others were zealously overprotected," she told AFP. "The process is much easier when they were raised in good faith by people who weren't guilty of hiding their origins."

That appears to be the case for Hurban. But other children taken from political prisoners were raised by military and police officials. Others were even taken in by their parents' killers.

No matter the circumstances, whenever a missing child is found, there is much difficult emotional work to do, said Stolkiner. "Reconstructing one's identity is a process that takes years. It's like a line of dominoes that keeps falling," she said.

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