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The memory place is near the northeast corner of Buenos Aires, where the eight-lane Avenida Libertador segues into Vicente Lopez, a posh, leafy suburb. “You have to drive past it all the time,” said one local. Most people claim they knew nothing about what went on there, though it is overlooked by high-rise apartments built before 1976. On March 24 of that year a military coup, widely welcomed by the Argentine majority, overthrew the weak and vicious presidency of Isabel Perón. Hundreds had been killed before, mostly by the right. But the 1976 coup was the beginning of the “dirty war” in which some 30,000 people were murdered.
On the 30th anniversary ofthe coup the Naval Mechanics School (known by its Spanish acronym, ESMA) reopened as “The Space for Memory.” Just months earlier a friend and I had taken a 15-cent commuter-train ride there from the fading, architecturally delicious Retiro station downtown. The ESMA’s low, 80-year-old white buildings spread across 67 bosky acres. Prosecutions of the ESMA torturers have resumed (some of the most culpable are under house arrest), so the entire site is evidence and can’t be refurbished until justice is served. The paint on the main building’s entablature is flaking, and russet doves have nested there; you hear their cooing over the traffic. The campus of the ESMA is lovely in springtime, crowded with subtropical trees: deodar, jacaranda with purple flowers, tipa blanca with yellow flowers.
It is best to see the ESMA under rain and dark sky if you are trying to imagine it when the Ford Falcons and military trucks drove through the spiked gate in the high wrought-iron fence (it was decorated then, as now, with gay little green-painted galleons, though now there are new life-size metal silhouettes representing the vanished victims). The trucks’ cargoes were people bound hand and foot with black hoods over their heads. They were beaten and dragged into this sanctuary to be tortured and either killed here or drugged and dumped from military planes into the River Plate estuary. Or crudely cremated, sometimes alive.
Born in a country with120 years of constitutional history, the seven-year Proceso, or national reorganization process, created a society of torture and murder. It was also about vanishing. The victims officially vanished from the earth, although at first bereaved parents might have been told that their missing child was in France. Sooner or later everyone understood that you could be seized, tormented, and killed apparently at random. The terror’s intent was, nominally, societal behavior modification. But you could burn your blue jeans and your books, cut your hair and cut off your politically suspect friends, and still you and your family could be disappeared.
* * *
The ESMA memory space is a key part of this swerving new democracy’s campaign against its past. There once was talk of leveling the place, but President Nestor Kirchner decreed that it should become a museum, a memorial. Kirchner is the first Argentine president to dare wield history against his opposition, which includes a merchants’ organization that prospered during the dictatorship and the Catholic Church, which supported the dictatorship and ratted out dissident clerics. On the 30th anniversary of the coup, Kirchner hosted a memorial that was duplicated in all Argentine consulates and embassies. Some have argued that he was playing politics with this most shameful episode in the nation’s history, that the “dirty war” should be recalled only in silence. But others say that Kirchner’s somber ceremonials were far better for the country than what one scholar called the “percepticide” of official forgetting by two previous presidents, Raul Alfonsin and Carlos Menem.
The forgetting was not confined to presidents or to the police, navy, army, and air force. Didn’t the 12th-floor tenants on Libertador’s 8000 block see the headlights every night, see the gate open, hear the car doors slam, hear the screams of the abducted and the curses and blows? Didn’t they smell the improvised crematoria? Probably. Did they draw the curtains, turn on the air conditioner? Perhaps. What about the night shift at the Gillette plant that used to be across the street? Did the workers take sidelong glances out the window? Kids at the polytechnic high school next door said they heard loud music from the ESMA during the day, apparently played to drown out the screams.
And there were those willing to do the work. Some even asserted that their work saved the nation. Contrite torturers were absolved by their military priests.The military had its own diocese.
One of the scariest things about the ESMA at that time was how its captives and captors intermingled. Workaday business, whatever that was at this terrible time—forging documents, faking photographs, writing propaganda, inventorying the goods stolen from the abductees, planning more abductions—went on as the prisoners were moved through working areas in shackles and blindfolds or black hoods like those used recently at Abu Ghraib.The Argentines even had a version of water boarding, which they called the submarino.
Torture at the ESMA became part of a working bureaucracy: screams of pain, pleading, and fear rose among the inboxes and filing cabinets of the youthful clerks and naval guards, who were mostly age 16 to 20. Murder followed torture because it is the logical end of the torment of human bodies and because when torture victims survive they hold their tormentors to account. Out of the 5,300 people brought in to the ESMA about 200 survived. We will never know which of the 5,300 read the wrong books, had leftish sympathies, worked with guerrilla insurrectionists, or tossed bombs, because the regime destroyed its records when the dictatorship fell. There was no innocence. General Iberico Saint Jean said at the time,“First we kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators; then . . . their sympathizers, then those who are indifferent and finally we kill the timid.” But to many the military was never wrong; the mantra among the oppressors, the bystanders, and even some relatives of the victims was “they must have done something.”
The tens of thousands who worked atthe ESMA—cadets, trainees, guards, clerks, janitors, cooks, and gardeners, not just the commanders and torturers—knew the real story, knew the meaning of the people in eight-inch shackles arriving by night and screaming in the torture chambers. They signed a pact with the Devil just by cashing their paychecks. One pilot of the planes from which prisoners were dropped, Adolfo Scilingo, confessed and is imprisoned for life in Spain. But most of his accomplices are still free. There are stories of torturers stalking their victims well after the dictatorship fell—even sending survivors Christmas cards. It is as if the repressors and victims shared a terrible, secret language that no one else could understand. No Argentine torture victim seems to have retaliated by attacking a torturer, even though knife-point vengeance is deep in the national folklore, in the gaucho epic of Martin Fierro and the words of famous tangos such as “Silbando” and “Luz del Candil.” The victims’ collective desire is to see the offenders tried and punished by the due process that they did their best to destroy. About a thousand names of accused oppressors have been published in the daily papers, which still carry memorial notices for the abducted. Distrust of Argentine officialdom remains, but it seems credible that justice is about to happen. Two pioneering human-rights groups, the Mothers and the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, say they trust the new government’s jurisprudence. They don’t want vengeance, but they cry out for justice.
A few days after our visit to the ESMA, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo led a 24-hour march to mark the anniversary of the abduction andmurder of 14 of its original protesters, including the founder Azucena Villaflor and two French nuns. They were taken to the “officers’ casino” on the ESMA campus and then flown to a dropzone. The remains of Villaflor and ten other victims were recently found; they had been buried in unmarked graves where their bodies came ashore decades ago. Their reinterments received official honors. Villaflor’s ashes were buried next to the white pyramide in the Plaza de Mayo at the center of Buenos Aires. The following night, for the first time in months, the nation’s capital dome was illuminated with diamond-bright lights.
Villaflor’s protest had been inspired by a simple idea: the government is murdering our children and that is wrong. To silence this idea the government murdered her and her friends. But the idea won. Now her daughter tells the crowd that the center of this city of 3.4 million belongs to her mother forever. The aging, white-kerchiefed Madres march around her in a line like a spoke of a wheel. Their signs say “Remember and punish” and “Silence is treason.” Around their necks hang pictures of their dead children.
The mothers’ signs protest past policies against remembrance and punishment. When the dictatorship crumbled after the 1983 Falklands War, the dictators were tried, sentenced, and then amnestied. Apart from realizing the horror’s extent and the endless grief, the most appalling thing in the dictatorship’s aftermath was the amnesty and the campaign to forget. The “put all this behind us” lobby was typified throughout the 1990s by the flamboyantly corrupt President Menem. In the language of clemency and kindness, the oblivion lobby begged the nation to forgive and forget both the victims and the victimizers. The amnestied killers were only too happy to be forgotten and much more so to have their victims forgotten; that was the goal in the first place.
The advocates of forgetting—who included not just local politicians and their media but some outside reporters—became accomplices, even after the junta’s official disgrace, in obliterating the victims and assuring that Argentines would never know whether the man in the next car in a traffic jam, the middle-aged police sergeant at the next café table, or the freshman legislator with a military background had been in the midnight task force that had abducted, tortured, and murdered their children.
* * *
On the day of President Kirchner’s memorials a former Argentine Ambassador to France, Fernando Gelbert, said, “The true memorial we are building is our democracy.” But the nation still needs monuments like the ESMA.
Our guide, an anthropologist, has adoctorate in Maya civilization. Her tone is academic, even dispassionate, as though the dictatorship had happened 1,300 years ago rather than during her childhood. Yet much of the task here is archeological in a forensic way. In the 20 years that the navy held the ESMA after the dictatorship fell it stripped away and rebuilt a good deal. Elevators to the basement punishment blocks were removed, and stairways were sealed. A magnificent reception hall with parquet floors and hardwood columns replaced the dingy entryway through which the victims were dragged in 1976. Also gone is the bugged phone booth where many captives were compelled to tell their families to not worry, that they were fine, to please not go to any trouble.
The redecoration began even before the Organization of American States launched an investigation of the ESMA in 1978. But when the investigation began the rebuilding shifted into high gear. Prisoners being held at the ESMA were killed or moved to a distant island called El Silencio, considerately provided by the archdiocese of Buenos Aires (a torture victim’s forged signature was on the title document). A torture chamber that had been lined with egg cartons to absorb screams was renamed “the audio-visual center.” The OAS team was not fooled, though, because the navy had forgotten to remove their cattle prods. Since then, the attics and basement where the prisoners were held, tortured, and killed have been gutted and turned into bare, dark, echoing spaces with concrete floors and steel rafters.
The archeologists are trying to confirm the original floor plans. But we know that the space was constantly changing. Cubicle partitions went up and down at the whims of commanders. The architecture of this torture factory lives in the memories of those who suffered here, who while blindfolded carefully recalled where this table was, where that staircase was, how many steps from the cell to the torture chamber, where you turned left, and where right.
The space for memory is now mapped as the victims experienced it. One memory-based diagram shows that there were five torture cells located against the basement’s north wall in 1977; the next year there were four. The “maternity ward,” barely large enough for two beds, moved every year (the babies were given up for military adoption, the mothers killed). The “infirmary,” where the tortured were bucked up by doctors for more abuse, is always close to the torture cells in the victims’ memories. The reconstruction was by prisoner labor, of course. Another prisoner specialty was translating military instruction manuals from English to Spanish. These skilled captives got to live in an attic facility called the pecera, or the aquarium. But the attic had a torture chamber, too. Later, the pecera’s rough bathroom, whose toilets the inmates had scrubbed with their barehands, was replaced by a luxury bathroom with black marble countertops for the officers who lived next door. By the end of our tour, my friend and I badly needed a bathroom, but neither of us could bring himself to use this one.
* * *
The day we visited the ESMA boys and girls about the same age as the conscripts 30 years ago were on the campus setting up exhibits on human rights. Derechos humanos was a phrase practically forbidden by the dictators.
Buenos Aires is a different city now. Poorer, but, I think, happier with its chancy economy and new freedom. November’s huge fourth annual gay-pride parade and a march for abortion rights drew hundreds of thousands. A gigantic condom was pulled over the municipal Obelisko in honor of AIDS Awareness Day. The city is rebuilding at a great pace, but there are still many impoverished but dapper street merchants selling city guides, fresh gardenias, ballpoint pens, magnifying glasses, dish towels, soprano recorders, and clock calculators. Many people need several jobs to get by.
Yet to the visitor Buenos Aires is abundant,exciting, and incredibly cheap. It is full of young people born since the dictatorship. They are making out in doorways among the falling blossoms of springtime and feeding each other fresh strawberry sundaes in cafes. They were stenciling fuera Bush on the sidewalks in the aftermath of his unfortunate November visit. They are having babies.
Down in the Recoleta flea market, among the old magazines, worn-out bellows cameras, and ancient typewriters, I found a perfect pair of photographs in solid silver frames: a doll-faced Evita and an angelic Hitler. Someone has probably bought them by now—an older person who still believes that the dictatorship saved Western civilization. There are probably many such people, though they have had little to say in the editorial pages of the mainstream Buenos Aires papers.
How many survive who marched in the Proceso’s parades? Who still believe that the guerillas of the 1970s killed more people than the dictatorship? There didn’t seem to be many people from the middle class at the rally honoring the Madres’ interment. You wonder how many Argentines support Kirchner despite his dedication to uncovering the dictatorial past because he sticks it to Uncle Sam or because the stock market and exports are rising, unemployment is falling, and the towering foreign debt that the dictators left behind is being redistributed.
There was a recent scandal about naval intelligence spying on civilians; officials claimed that this was “an exceptional case.” But increasingly this is a country of inheritors. Perhaps they can’t remember the dictatorship, but they don’t seem to want it to happen again.
We walk out of the ESMA as an old Ford full of young people exits the gate of death. The kids flash us peace signs. They see two 60ish gray beards from the far side of the life that waits for them. We raise our hands and flash them back: V for peace, V for victory.
Marc B. Haefele has been covering California state and local politics for 25 years for publications that include the LA Weekly and the Los Angeles Times. He writes a column for the weekly Los Angeles Alternative.
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