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The Guardian view on bearing witness: when the mourners too are gone | Editorial

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The death of a leader of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo raises the question of how we can continue to remember

“We conquer death, dear children,” proclaimed Hebe de Bonafini, leader of Argentina’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. She devoted decades to ensuring that her sons, “disappeared” by the military junta in the late 1970s, were kept alive, if only in memory. The Mothers at first demanded the return of their children and then the punishment of those responsible for seizing and killing them. The risks they took were immense: the group’s founders were abducted and thrown into the ocean from “death flights”. But as politicians, the church and almost all of the media remained silent, these working-class housewives stood strong and confronted a brutal regime.

Now Mrs Bonafini too is gone. With her death, at 93, the group has dwindled further, though old companions marched in homage under the blistering sun last Thursday as her ashes were scattered on the plaza. Each day, inevitably, more of those who bore witness to the crimes of the past are lost. In Israel, more than 15,500 Holocaust survivors died last year. More than a third of China’s Tiananmen Mothers – who demand justice for children killed in the bloody crackdown on 1989’s pro-reform protests – have died. This month saw the death of Bao Tong, the most senior official jailed for his sympathy for the demonstrators. At 90, he remained under constant watch by authorities, and was one of the few who dared to break the taboo around the massacre, saying that China could not move forward until it “completely repudiated” the killings.

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