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Argentina’s Mothers of Plaza de Mayo: A living legacy of hope and human rights October 23, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Argentina, Human Rights, Latin America.
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Argentina correspondent, Marie Trigona – Women News Network – WNN


October 21, 2010


Mother of Plaza de Mayo with photos of missing childrenOne of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo on the recent 34th anniversary of Argentina’s 1976 military coup. She holds images of her son and daughter-in-law who became part of ‘the disappeared’ on July 29, 1976. Image: Marie Trigona/WNN

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Buenos Aires city center, known as Plaza de Mayo, has been a site of protest for decades. It is here that the Mothers of Argentina’s ‘disappeared,’ begin their weekly march in the capital plaza every Thursday afternoon.

Known as the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, they have passed down a legacy in defending human rights as they walk steadily together around the plaza to show the world that they still have not forgotten what happened to their loved ones during what has been called, ‘Argentina’s Dirty War.’

The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have been integral to recent investigations and discoveries in what have been called ‘crimes against humanity’ in the more than 30,000 estimated missing sons and daughters who became part of ‘the disappeared’ during the reign of Argentina’s military juntas from 1975 to 1983.

“I keep on looking for my children and everybody else’s children, because to me your daughter is my daughter, she’s a little bit mine. My children are a little bit yours,” said Carmen Robles de Zurita, a woman who is the Mother of two missing children: Her son, Nestro Juan Agustín Zurita, abducted at the age of 25, August 1, 1975; and Carmen’s daughter, María Rosa Zurita, abducted at the age of 21, November 1, 1975.

Now after three decades, justice is finally possible in criminal courts. Thanks to the investigations carried out by victims’ families and human rights activists, Argentina’s government is now revisiting its dark past with landmark Supreme Court human rights tribunals, following the 2003 removal of amnesty laws that protected members of the military government from prosecution of human rights abuses.

The Motor of Society

“The disappearance of people created a paralysis in society,” says Dr. Rodolfo Mattarollo, international law and human rights expert.

“Today we still don’t have the complete truth or information as to what happened to our children.”
– Marta Ocampo de Vazquez,
President of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line

On April 30, 1977, fourteen mothers gathered in the large plaza in front of the government building. The dictatorship prohibited people from gathering in public places, so they began walking around the pyramid in the center of the plaza. As more women joined the rounds, having visited police stations, prisons, judicial offices and churches, but finding no answers, the Mothers began to identify themselves by wearing white head scarves to symbolize the diapers of their lost and ‘disappeared’ children.

“Today we still don’t have the complete truth or information as to what happened to our children,” says Marta Ocampo de Vazquez, president of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo – Founding Line. “Who gave the order? Who executed them? What was our children’s final destiny?” she asks.

Nothing could stop the Mothers protest, not even physical attacks or endless threats.  In 1977, three of the founding Mothers and two French nuns, who supported the efforts of the Mothers, also became part of ‘the disappeared.’

“It surprises me when I see what I am today. Before I was a shy cry-baby. I had no political consciousness. I didn’t have any kind of consciousness. All that interested me was that my children were well. I was one of those mothers who went everywhere with their children. If they organized dances at the school to collect money, I was the one who was selling tickets. I was involved in everything my children did. You only become conscious when you lose something. When the Mothers first met we used to cry a lot and then we began to shout and demand, and nothing mattered anymore, except that we should find out children. Now I fight, I shout, I push if I have to, I kick but I still wonder to myself how I could have gone into those military buildings with all those guns pointed at my head,” said Mother, Margareta de Oro in an interview with author, Josephine Fisher, for the book, ‘Mothers of the Disappeared.’

The Pain of the Past

Alfredo Ignacio Astiz, a 22 year old Argentine Naval lieutenant and intelligence officer, infiltrated the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo posing as ‘Gustavo Niño,’ a brother of one of the disappeared. Astiz’s infiltration would haunt the Mothers and the nation for decades to come. The Mothers say today they still remember young “Gustavo,” who attended meetings of family members and marched with them.

“I keep on looking for my children and everybody else’s children.”
– Mother of Plaza de Mayo, Carmen Robles de Zurita

On December 8, 1977, the Mothers – Esther Ballestrino de Careaga and Maria Eugenia Ponce de Bianco – were forcefully taken, along with eight others, by military officials as they were attending a meeting at the Santa Cruz Church in Buenos Aires. Azucena Villaflor, another founding Mother, was also kidnapped outside her home just days later.

Two days later, on December 10, eight hundred and thirty-four Mothers signatures were printed on an almost full page petition advertisement in “La Nacion,” Argentina’s daily newspaper.  The ad pleaded for justice asking Argentine officials to open up and investigate cases of  their missing children.

Two weeks following the secret raid on the Santa Cruz Church, only one week after the December 15 afternoon march of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, five dead female bodies washed up on the shore of the Río de la Plata (the River Plate). The River Plate is a wide expansive river which borders both Argentina and Uruguay as it opens to the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Mothers had planned a major turnout, at their usual Thursday afternoon demonstration on Dec 15, but the abduction of members of the Mother’s group had a chilling effect on attendance,” said the American Embassy in Buenos Aires in a 1977 (then classified) report to the U.S. State Department. “An additional sheet of signatures for that petition, as well as $250 of funds collected to pay for the advertisement were taken during the abduction,” outlined the Embassy.

Mother of Plaza de Mayo, Elia Espen, at Santa Cruz ChurchOn the 30th anniversary (December 8, 2007) of the disappearance of the mothers from the Santa Cruz Church, Mother of Plaza de Mayo, Elia Espen, kneels at a memorial stone dedicated to the Mothers who lost their life. Image: Marie Trigona/WNN

In the early 1990s, on the edge of new breakthroughs in forensic science, it finally became possible to recover and identify DNA from skeletal remains. Genetic testing quickly became a critical tool in human rights investigations worldwide.

In 2005, through detailed forensic investigations of skeletal remains, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), was able to use DNA and forensic evidence to identify four of the washed-up bodies. It was decided without any doubt. The bodies belonged to three of the founding Mothers – Azucena Villaflor, Maria Eugenia Ponce and Esther Careaga, along with the French nun, Léonie Duquet.

“Everywhere we work we have seen the incredible pain and paralysis that a disappearance produces for a family.”
– Mercedes Doretti,
co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF)

“The remains of the four women are thought to have been thrown into the ocean from Air Force planes. The bodies washed out on the shore in 1977 and were buried as “N.N.” (unknowns) in the General Lavalle municipal cemetery, province of Buenos Aires,” a 2006 Annual EAAF Report explained. “EAAF exhumed the four women from General Lavalle cemetery and identified them based on anthropological and genetic analysis.”

“Everywhere we work we have seen the incredible pain and paralysis that a disappearance produces for a family. Recovering the remains is not enough to erase the pain of the past but it is a huge part of healing and a crucial form of reparations. Families need it. In fact, we think that too often the recovery and identification of remains is not viewed enough as an integral part of the reparations process,” said Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of EAAF.

Twenty-eight years after the founding Mothers themselves ‘disappeared,’ on December 8, 2005, the remains of Azucena Villaflor, Maria Ponce de Bianco and Esther Ballestrino de Careaga were cremated and their ashes buried in honor at Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo.

Breaking Walls of Impunity

Since Argentina’s seven year bloody military dictatorship, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo have endlessly searched for truth, transparency and accountability. Today the Mothers have succeeded to break the walls of impunity as a wide international symbol of non-violent action.

The 1986, Argentina Full Stop law and the 1987 Due Obedience law was “used to obstruct the investigation of thousands of cases of forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution committed between 1976 and 1983 when the military governments were in power,” said the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International in a 2003 Legal Memorandum. These laws were a deep blow to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who resisted the government’s attempt to use amnesty laws to pardon military actions and human rights abuses.

“As the youth today take up our banner, the 30,000 ‘disappeared’ will never be ‘disappeared.’ They will be present.”
– 2010 statement by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo

Today, alternating between years of amnesty and arrest, Alfredo Ignacio Astiz is facing a stepped up Supreme Court battle. He is facing investigation along with seventeen other officers and officials. In addition to individual crimes, the Court is also investigating charges of ‘crimes against humanity’ committed between 1976 – 1983 at the ESMA Navy Mechanics School in Buenos Aires.

Known as the largest and most notorious torture center in Argentina during the nation’s ‘dark years,’ the ESMA Navy Mechanics School has been linked to more than 5,000 people, who’s fate has brought them to become part of ‘the disappeared.’

(Now) “The military are having the trials that our children never had,” said Mother of Plaza de Mayo Truth Commissioner, Nora Cortinas. Nora’s son, Carlos Gustavo Cortiñas, was an economy student who became part of ‘the disappeared’ on April 15, 1977.

Because many of the mothers are now in their 80s, some worry that they will not live to see the former Argentine military machine held responsible for its crimes.

“What we want is for the trials to speed up a little bit and not be tried on a case by case basis; and that the government takes responsibility to help end the threats against witnesses, judges, and lawyers, so that we can really say that there’s justice in this country,” added Mother Cortinas.

“I was one of those mothers who went everywhere with their children. If they organized dances at the school to collect money, I was the one who was selling tickets. I was involved in everything my children did. You only become conscious when you lose something.”
– Mother of Plaza de Mayo, Margareta de Oro

Mother, Ocampo de Vazquez, now 81, has gone through decades of struggle and frustration. But she knows her long campaign to find the truth must continue. “I don’t see an end in sight,” she exclaimed.

“We resist because there are crimes unpunished and questions about the disappearances left unanswered,” says Ines Ragni, a Mother from the southern province of Neuquén. The Mother’s slogan, “Never Again,” was adopted by the Mothers with the hope that Argentina and other countries in the region, including Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, who have also suffered from military dictatorship, would never repeat their own dark chapters in history.

“Our children wanted to live, but their lives were taken away. The youth in the street protesting today are part of the memory of our children,” echo the Mothers.

“As the youth today take up our banner, the 30,000 ‘disappeared’ will never be ‘disappeared.’ They will (always) be present.”

For more information on this topic go to:


Women News Network – WNN investigative journalist, filmmaker and radio producer, Marie Trigona, has focused on many human rights and social justice stories covering Argentina. Her work has appeared in The Buenos Aires Herald, Canadian Dimension, Dollars and Sense and many other publications. She is also a reporter for Free Speech Radio News, a daily syndicated radio news program, broadcast from the U.S.

Additional material for this article has been provided by Women News Network – WNN.


©2010 Women News Network – WNN


Happy Mothers Day to the Bravest Women I Know May 9, 2009

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madres de la plaza de mayo

(Roger’s note: this excellent article published recently in Jakarta does not, however do full justice to the Madres de la Plaza.  During the Dictatorship, when many labor leaders and other leftists remained silent, the Mothers virtually alone stood up to the Fascist generals by defying their orders about demonstrating in the Plaza)



Mothers of Plaza De Mayo: Justice for disappeared loved

ones, one step at a (long) time

Tifa Asrianti ,  The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 04/26/2009 12:35 PM  |  People

Why are there women here dancing on their own?/ Why is there this sadness in their eyes? ../ They’re dancing with the missing/They’re dancing with the dead/They dance with the invisible ones/Their anguish is unsaid … (Sting)

The idiom “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world” applies to the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo.  Established in 1977, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an organization of Argentine mothers whose children disappeared during the “Dirty War”, the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Since 1977, the bereaved mothers have gathered to walk around the Plaza de Mayo in central Buenos Aires for 30 minutes every Thursday afternoon. The simple action of walking gradually caught the world’s attention. Their movement has also inspired families of the disappeared and victims of the human rights violation in Indonesia to engage in similar peaceful protests in front of the State Palace. The Argentinean women have received international awards for their work on human rights. Songs have even been dedicated to them, such as “They Dance Alone” by Sting and Mothers of the Disappeared by U2.

Two members of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo (who are now grandmothers) Lydia Taty Almeida and Aurora Morea, visited Jakarta between April 16 and April 22 to share their experience with families of the disappeared. They also met with the National Commission on Human Rights and National Commission on Violence Against Women to boost efforts towards the ratification of The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (Convention against Enforced Disappeared). In the words of Morea, those who kidnap people and make them vanish want to ensure that the victims “are non existent, are nothing, with no identity.” “But Juan, Carlos, Susana [her own son]… exists among the 30,000 who disappeared.”

“Holding on to the memory is the way to fight remains of the past regimes which want the whole story of the disappeared to vanish,” Morea said through an interpreter. During their time in Jakarta Almeida and Aurora sat down with The Jakarta Post for an interview;  the following is an excerpt.



How did the mothers start the movement?

Almeida: In 1976, there was a military coup and the government was taken over. But the disappearances already started in 1975. After the military coup, more and more people disappeared. The mothers started to ask around about their sons and daughters. [Almeida’s first son Alejandro, a first year medical student, disappeared after he left home in 1975. In 1976, Morea lost four family members: daughter Susana, who was two months pregnant, Susana’s husband, the mother of her son-in-law and another son-in-law. – Ed.]

Azucena Villaflor de De Vincenti, one of the founders of the group, decided that there’s no point in everybody going separately, we have to go together to achieve something.  She decided to get everyone together and said, “Let’s go to the Plaza de Mayo.” It is the square near the government building. Everything, from demonstrations to celebrations, is held there.

At that time, there was a law prohibiting more than three people from gathering together. There were 14 mothers gathering at the first meeting and the police kept asking us to walk on. So we walked in pairs around the square. That’s how we first started the movement on Thursday, April 30, 1977. Until today, we walk around the square every Thursday.

How do the mothers keep the spirit for 32 years?

Almeida: Even if you are not an activist, no woman is ever prepared to lose the most precious thing top her, her children. Most of us were schoolteachers, housewives, and some were professionals, but none had ever experience in activism. We asked questions to the government. Everything was learned by doing.

We just march and we have achieved things very slowly. But in the last 10 years, we have seen justice upheld. There were trials and some of the perpetrators have been convicted. It keeps us going and gives us energy, we will not stop until the last perpetrator is convicted.

Morea: In the beginning, it was the desperate feeling of losing the children and nobody was able to tell us where they were. It was the powerlessness that brought us together. Then the police would kick us around [when marching around the plaza] and put us in prison. It was like walking constantly against the wall. The more we didn’t find out [news of the children], the more determined we were to keep going around the plaza.


What are some of the problems the mothers have faced in the past?

Almeida: When we started, no one took us seriously. People called us crazy. In a way, perhaps we were crazy because of our grief and pain. If we went to the police to report the disappearances, the police would say, ”Oh yes, don’t worry, your son has probably gone away with his girlfriend.” Many people were also scared and ignored us. It was important for us to form the group, to have other mothers uplifting each other’s spirit.

Morea: Many of the disappeared were thrown out of airplanes alive, they were called death flights [according to the perpetrators’ testimony given in courtroom]. The bodies were never found. Many women taken into custody were pregnant. The perpetrators waited until the mothers gave birth, killed the mothers and gave the babies to military families. So we made another organization called Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. It is estimated around 500 babies were lost this way, and only 90 were found. They were not sure if they were children of the disappeared, because some of them refused to participate in DNA tests.

Almeida: The disappeared can be anyone, not just activists, but journalists and people who went to slums and told people how to do things. It was just a social thing, but the government didn’t like it. You only needed to make a comment against the government [to get abducted].
The government at the time instituted neoliberal economic policies …  The majority of the disappeared were people who had homes and food but they fought for equal access to water, education and healthcare. It definitely didn’t fit into the economic plan. If they had continued their fight, Argentina would have become a whole different country.

We found around 600 detention centers, where they tortured, killed and raped the victims. There’s a military school in Panama,  run by the US Army. When the US army were in Vietnam, they learned torture techniques. After the Vietnam war, they went to the school and taught the Argentinean military how to torture. A lot of torture techniques used in Argentina are learned from the American armies [In 2000, the US government under Clinton administration released a 1978 cable from the US ambassador to Paraguay, Robert White, to the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. The cable shows the US were involved in the disappearances of left-wing activists in South America], that’s what shocked us.

When did you start to get results from the movement?

Almeida: In 1983, when a democratic government was reinstalled, the government put the military generals on trial. It was a huge step after so many years. People began to feel justice was being served. Unfortunately the generals were released later.  Some of the military members had pressed President Raúl Ricardo Alfonsín to stop the trials. Eventually he bowed under the pressure. He also passed two laws prohibiting such trials [The Argentinean Congress passed Full Stop Law in 1986 and Law of Due Obedience in 1987. The laws limited the trials and gave immunity to perpetrators]. It took things back to square one.

The first time we really felt results was in 2003, under President Néstor Kirchner. He was the first one who actually made [forced disappearances] a political issue. It was the focus of his government. He denounced the above laws, listened to the mothers and knew the perpetrators should be put on trial.  A number of generals have been convicted. There are barriers, but we’ll never give up the cause until our last breath.

Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner [wife of Néstor who is Argentina’s current president] were democratically elected. Both are the result of people’s choice. Cristina now continues the work of her husband.   We don’t have the bodies to bury, there were no remains. We need to have burial rituals because we don’t know where they are, what happened to them.

Morea: Anthropologists play an important role in our cases because when we find burial sites, they can identify the bodies even if they had been buried for 20 years.  In 1999, we found a mass burial site and the anthropologist identified the remains of Susana, who was shot in her head, along with the remains of Susana’s husband. The mother of my son-in-law and the other son-in-law were never found, perhaps they were taken onboard a death flight, but we don’t know for sure. Now I can go [to Susana’s grave] and mourn and pray. At least one chapter is closed.

That whole process is really important. You don’t know whether they were alive, whether they suffered, tortured or shot instantly. Many bodies have been found, but it is still a long process. This helps mothers deal with it psychologically

What are the challenges the mothers face today?

Almeida: The trial process is very slow, we are getting older. We worry that we are running out of time. We want to see every perpetrator put in prison. From the moment you see the lawyers until the perpetrators are put in prison, it could take years.  

Morea: In my cases, it took 23 years to find the bodies, and eight years to try two perpetrators. But in the end, only one was put in prison, the other was set free. It can take 20 years or 30 years. We don’t need to find the bodies, testimony from witnesses is enough. But it is still difficult. 

The organization of Mothers of Plaza de Mayo split into two factions. Why?

Almeida: It is a difficult subject. We split in 1986 because we had different visions on how to continue the fight. Our group, Founding Line, only wants justice, we want to know what happened to our children and put the perpetrators on trial.  We don’t want to disagree and agree to everything. It’s not a fight with the government, it’s more a discussion. If the government does something good, we congratulate them. If not, we will lobby the government. We are not a political party.

The other group is more political. But I’m going to leave it at that. [The other faction, Mothers of Plaza de Mayo Association, reportedly wants more fundamental changes in Argentina]

What was the meeting with the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights about?

Almeida: We talked about the importance of ratifying the convention on the protection against forced disappearances and about the human rights cases. It is a very big field to work on, because the Criminal Code still uses the Dutch version. And every single case [on human rights] must go to parliament, to the Attorney General. If the process in Argentina is slow, it is double slow here. It is difficult. But people here are still young, the mothers of the disappeared must continue. If they don’t do it, nobody else will.

What suggestions do you have for the movement here?

Almeida: Lose no hope. Keep fighting. Guard the memories. We wear headscarves with the names of our disappeared children. We also bring the pictures of our children. It prevents us from forgetting them. We need to show that the disappeared are humans; they have names, faces and families.

Argentina Remembers: Mobilizations Mark 33rd Anniversary of Military Coup April 21, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Argentina, Foreign Policy, Latin America.
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by: Benjamin Dangl, t r u t h o u t | Report

 The weekend that the hemisphere’s presidents met in Trinidad at the Summit of the Americas marked the same weekend that Cuba defeated the US in the Bay of Pigs invasion 48 years ago. At the Summit, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega recalled the invasion in a speech that rightly criticized US imperialism throughout the 20th century. President Barack Obama replied, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”

    However, as the US president, Obama inherits a bloody legacy that is still very much alive in today’s Latin America. Just weeks before the presidents met in Trinidad, thousands of Argentines marched once again to demand justice for 30,000 people disappeared in a US-backed military dictatorship.

    On March 24, 1976 a military junta took power in Argentina, and, until 1981, General Jorge Rafael Videla presided over the country in a reign of terror, torture, surveillance and murder.

    On March 24, 2009, in Mendoza, Argentina, colorful marches filled the central streets of the city in remembrance of the coup, and to demand justice. The various banners and placards waving above the crowd were a testament to Argentina’s healthy political diversity in activism and politics – from Maoists selling their newspapers to Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo giving teary hugs to supporters and friends.

    Though the march was organized around one central theme – justice, truth and memory regarding the dictatorship – other themes arose in the crowd as well, including the negative impact of soy production, rising bus fares and political corruption.

    The march was a time to remember when Henry Kissinger gave his blessing to the Argentine military junta in 1976, saying, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly” and reassuring the torturing, bloody leaders when he said, “I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”

    Marches and protests in Buenos Aires on the same day were attended by the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a powerful human rights movement that for decades has been demanding the truth regarding the whereabouts of their disappeared children. One document read by some of the Mothers explained that still, after all these years, “the slowness of justice generates impunity and impunity only creates more impunity.”

    A column by one leading Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, Hebe Bonafini, explained that her movement is also doing more than just marching and lobbying for justice. Their reach has expanded into all kinds of media and walks of life. They have opened a literary café and publishing house, and hold seminars which 2,800 different students attend. Their “Shared Dreams” project provides housing in poor neighborhoods as well as soup kitchens and daycare centers. Their radio station reaches into neighboring Uruguay and as far away as Brazil.

    During the Buenos Aires mobilizations, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo spoke of the fact that “today there have still only been 44 sentences” for the authors of “a plan of systematic extermination” during the dictatorship. Therefore, the Mothers said, “we have to keep on fighting for truth and justice,” as there are still 526 criminals of the dictatorship that still need to be tried. They demanded an “opening of the all of the archives of the Armed Forces and security to know to the truth.” They also called for the appearance of Julio López, the main testifier in a case against Miguel Etchecolatz, a repressor under the dictatorship.

    Julio López, a political prisoner during the dictatorship, was disappeared in 2006 a few hours before he was scheduled to testify against Etchecolatz. López was last seen on September 18, 2006. Journalist Marie Trigona reported that Nilda Eloy, another survivor of the dictatorship who testified with López to convict Etchecolatz, said, “Most of the evidence suggests that Julio López was kidnapped by the gangsters from the Greater Buenos Aires police force and rightwing fascists …”

    Outside Buenos Aires, other cities remembered these harsh times that still cast shadows over generations upon generations. But this March 24 was also a time of hope and reconstruction. In Cordoba, Argentina, La Perla (The Pearl), a detention and torture center run by the military dictatorship was transformed into a “Space for Memory” and opened to the public. Emiliano Fessia, a member of the HIJOS human rights organization, said of the space, “This will now be a place of life, after being a place of death.”


Benjamin Dangl, based in Paraguay, is the author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia” (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a web site on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl@gmail.com.