A very touching story from the BBC.
Twelve years ago Bernarda Gallardo saw a headline in the local paper that changed her life. After reading the story about an abandoned baby she decided she had to help.
“They killed and dumped a newborn baby on the rubbish heap,” read the headline.
The little girl was found on 4 April 2003 – her body had been put in a black rubbish bag and thrown in a bin which was later emptied and its contents taken to the local dump.
There are people who make a living recycling rubbish from the dump in the southern Chilean town of Puerto Montt, and it was one of them who found the body.
Gallardo was horrified. She immediately decided to give the baby a proper burial. She was in the process of adopting a child at the time and immediately felt a connection – this could easily have been her baby and she wanted to do something for it.
“If you get a baby that is alive you clothe it and feed it and put it in a cot. If your baby arrives dead you have to get a coffin and give it a decent burial,” she says.
But she also knows that some mothers don’t want to keep their children, and even feels a connection with them.
“These are young women, often no more than girls who are victims of rape and incest. If it is their father or stepfather who rapes them, they are too frightened to speak out. The rapists are often the ones who are providing for the family,” she says.
Gallardo was raped by a man in her neighbourhood in 1976 when she was 16.
She became pregnant and had the baby, a daughter, whom she loved and brought up herself.
“After I was raped, I was lucky enough to be able to move on because of the support I got from my friends. But if I had been left on my own, perhaps I would have felt as helpless as they do.”
Another reason babies are abandoned is poverty. “The women simply can’t afford to feed another baby,” says Gallardo.
It’s difficult to estimate how many babies are dumped in Chile. Official statistics show that about 10 are found each year, but the real figure could be much higher – most dumps are closed to the public so it’s possible that there are more bodies that have never been found.
Gallardo’s desire to do something for the baby in Puerto Montt was the start of a long and bureaucratic process.
She decided to name the girl Aurora after the Roman goddess of dawn, and in fact the baby did bring light to the darkness.
But getting hold of Aurora’s body so it could be buried wasn’t easy. In Chile if a body isn’t claimed by a member of the family it’s classed as human waste and disposed of with other surgical waste – Gallardo managed to step in quickly enough to stop this happening.
Doctors have to prove that a baby lived in order for it to be registered as a human being and thus allowed a proper burial – so they had to examine Aurora’s body.
Often doctors prefer to say a baby died at birth because they want to protect vulnerable mothers. Abortion is illegal in Chile and if a mother is caught abandoning her baby, even if she leaves it at a hospital, she can face up to five years in prison.
Gallardo also had to adopt Aurora in order to bury her, even though the child was dead.
Initially the judge in charge of the case had his doubts about Gallardo. He thought that she was Aurora’s biological mother and that she only wanted the body because she was feeling guilty about dumping her.
Once she convinced him of her good intentions, he told her it was the strangest case he had ever come across and that no-one in Chile had ever adopted a dead baby before. But he believed she was doing the right thing.
It took many months to get the medical tests done and the paperwork sorted out but finally Gallardo was allowed to take Aurora’s body for burial. Five-hundred people came to the funeral – they had been following Aurora’s progress in the local newspaper where the story was originally published.
Gallardo says the atmosphere was like a big birthday party – a celebration of Aurora’s life. There were children, doctors, nurses, the local press, people from the countryside and the judge. They sang songs, read poems about Aurora and played music.
It was important to Gallardo that so many people came to the public ceremony. “I wanted to get my local community to think about what was going on. Why are babies being left to die when there are least four families ready and waiting and in the right condition to adopt an unwanted baby?” she says.
“Instead of killing the babies give them up for adoption!”
The very day after the funeral another body, a baby boy, was found dumped. Gallardo was upset and couldn’t believe that all her work had seemingly been in vain.
By then she was well-known locally. People told her she had done the right thing for Aurora – and then asked her what she was going to do about the boy.
Eventually she decided to stick posters on all of Puerto Montt’s rubbish dumps telling people. “Don’t throw your babies in the rubbish,” and reminding them that two babies had been dumped in recent months – Aurora and then Manuel.
She thinks things are starting to change with better education about domestic abuse and more advice on family planning.
But Gallardo feels the law in Chile still victimises women who are poor or have been abused.
By coincidence, her own family history reveals another connection with babies who have been abandoned. Her great grandmother was found on the steps of a nunnery in Italy.
Gallardo wants women in Chile who aren’t able to look after their babies to be able to leave them in safe places too – she suggests dedicated areas in hospitals.
In the 12 years since Aurora’s funeral, Gallardo has adopted and buried three more dead children – Manuel, Victor and Cristobal.
She’s currently in the process of doing the same for another little girl, Margarita. She wants to give them “their dignity and for them to have somewhere to rest in peace”.
Gallardo’s story inspired Chilean director, Rodrigo Sepulveda to make a film about her. Named after Aurora, the prize-winning movie is currently being shown across Chile and at film festivals around the world.
Gallardo often visits the graves of the babies she has buried and sometimes notices that other people have left flowers.
She wonders whether some may be from the biological mothers and takes comfort from the fact that they are able to mourn knowing that their children are at peace.