Don't Mention the Falklands

Saturday, 12 June 2010

"El que no salta es un Ingles!"
"El que no salta es un Ingles!"

"If you don't jump you're English!"
"If you don't jump you're English!"

I asked for the translation of this phrase whilst surrounded by thousands of fist-pumping, chant-bellowing Argentinians in B.A's Plaza De La Republica.

We were at a 'historical' flotilla-parade, organised in celebration of 200 years of Argentine independence from Spanish colonial rule. The elastic tension was stretched to breaking point by the wild swivelling of light cannons, the blanketing fumes of sizzling meat, the cracking of fireworks in the night sky.

As the parade cranes trundled past they offered huge conceptual stage structures; dramatic and theatrical, creating windows into Argentina's past.

The procession used thumping loudspeakers and wild-eyed actors to represent periods such as the founding of the republic, the industrial boom, the emergence of Tango, the military regime, and, eventually, the Falklands/ Malvinas war.

The truck representing the brutality of Argentina's 'Dirty War' (the purge of suspected left-wing activists and their families) had hushed the crowd. Huge, rusted iron sculptures of the national constitution, the dove of peace and a manacled prisoner were hung in chains from the arm of a crane. With a periodic roar, the sculptures were engulfed in flames, before being cooled again with bursts of water. The truck's dark, industrial beat faded as it rolled down Avenida 9 De Julio, but the image of the seared, smouldering sculptures had remained.

Most of the crowd would have known what was coming next; the Malvinas war is inexorably linked with the former regime. The invasion was a last grasp towards nationalistic pride from a government running empty on popularity, a police state who had isolated it's people through sickening and systematic human rights abuses.

All was quiet.

Another truck approached stealthily, it's spotlights switched off. Marching silently after the truck were around 100 dark figures, wearing hooded military raincoats and carrying rifles. The sound system, which had been quietly crackling with the sounds of rainfall, suddenly boomed with two colossal bangs; the sound of heavy artillery gunfire.

As the crowd gasped and recoiled from the noise, the soldiers were illuminated. They were carrying white crosses on their backs; white crosses representing 'war graves'.
It was this use of symbolism, not the jeering of the crowd, that was the most disconcerting part of the experience.

The Argentinians, young and old, recognised the dead soldiers as being the young victims of the Falklands/ Malvinas War, purely because of its status as the sole international armed conflict the country has engaged in during it's 200-year history.

The level of sadness, regret and anger that still surrounds the conflict has taken me by surprise. For people of our generation in the UK, 'The Falklands' seems like just another standard skirmish that our military has been involved in. A page in the history book, footnotes to the 'World Wars', cast alongside the Gulf War, the Boer War, Malaya, Afghanistan, Suez, etc.
Over here, it's not a subject to be casually brought up over tea and biscuits.

The Argentines haven't forgotten, but for most the war is a source of sorrow, not of pride. Many of my friends here have memories of saving their pocket money to send food to the troops, of being told repeatedly by the media that the troops were 'winning' and that victory would come soon. They also have memories of their parent's confusion when it emerged that the islands were now even more firmly under British control, that the few troops left alive were the ones under British custody, that their money, and the food it should have paid for, had never reached the soldiers.

It appears that the people here are yet to be de-sensitised to the results of armed warfare, and much less willing to allow their government to take up arms in the future. One of my English students explained-
"After the Malvinas, when so many defenceless young soldiers were sent to die, everyone here was thinking 'never again'. When we sing, it's because it's the only way in which we can protest our sovereignty over the islands."