"They are neither dead nor alive, they are disappeared"

Saturday, 17 July 2010



Compare the two following paragraphs:

1. An engineer working on the first section of the Channel Tunnel has been electrocuted. The man died as a result of the incident which happened on Friday at about 19:40 GMT.... overhead wires along the first section of the railway carry 25,000 volts of electricity.
(BBC news)


2. They undressed me and tied my hands and feet to a bed frame they called a 'grill'. For what must have been around an hour they applied electric current to the most sensitive parts of my body; genitals, hips, knees, neck, gums.... for the neck and gums they used a tiny instrument with several points, directly connected to the mains supply of 220 volts.
(Testimony of Carlos Hugo Basso, survivor of the 1976 Argentine military dictatorship).

Both events are unfortunate and both presumably painful for the victims. Yet only one of these paragraphs makes me feel physically sick.

The second victim was luckier, perhaps, in that he escaped with his life and received shocks of 220 volts, as opposed to 25,000 volts. But upon reading the testimonies of those violated (and those who committed the violations) during Argentina's 1976 military dictatorship, I've become more resolved than ever that my future career, should I have one, lies in the field of human rights.

And yet, what is it about this 'interrogation' scene that makes me want to throw up?
The thought of the excruciating agony and humiliation the man must have felt doesn't make me sick, it makes me angry.
The fact that the majority of those arrested, tortured and 'disappeared' during the regime were innocent, or certainly never proven guilty, doesn't make me sick, it depresses me.
It is the image of a human being; rational and self satisfied, acting with impunity and with the full support of their government and their church, raising a cattle-prod with a steady, righteous hand and applying it effectively to the flesh of another fellow human being, in the best interests of their nation, in representation of modern humanity, it is that, I think, that makes me want to project my guts across the room.
The intent to cause extreme pain is more nauseating, to me, than the thought of the physical manifestations of pain itself.

The Argentine military dictatorship came to power in a reasonably bloodless coup in 1976. They were originally supported by the Argentine public, as they had promised to 'eradicate' the people responsible for numerous fatal bombings attributed to left-wing extremists, and bring 'western catholic values' back to Argentina. Predictably, (humans never seem to learn from history), all civil rights and laws were eroded, the police, politicians and judiciary were all in the pocket of the military establishment, and an atmosphere of fear, distrust and paranoia reined, as the pretext of 'fighting terrorism' was used against any civilian who was an inconvenience to anybody in power or favour.
Eventually, those heroic senior police officers and nationalistic military officials (who bravely raped/ killed thousands of unarmed women and kidnapped children in the name of state security) ordered thousands of inexperienced young Argentines to liberate the Falklands/ Malvinas islands for the purpose of reviving their flagging popularity.
Confronted with a real war, those brave and dedicated military operatives surrendered the islands to the United Kingdom after just 74 days, half of which was spent transporting British artillery to the Southern hemisphere.

A few of my friends here have given me accounts, from relatives, about how it was to live in that period:

“My mom was coming back from work with two friends (a guy and a girl). They were stopped by the police and asked for ID. Back then there were restrictions on leaving your house and meeting people, as it could be considered a 'suspicious activity'.
After they showed their ID they were told that they must be taken to the police station to verify their criminal records. The three of them panicked and my mom remembered she had a card my grandma's husband (an important member of the police) had given her stating she was his daughter and saying she should use it if the police approached her.
She gave the card to a police officer who immediately changed his attitude towards her and started apologizing and asked her to give his regards to her father.
The three of them felt better for a second until my mom realised they were not letting her friends go with her.
My mom's female friend was made to sign a fake confession saying she a prostitute looking for business when the police took her in.
The guy was imprisoned for several days too, and tortured until he signed a confession saying that he was doing drugs. The police allegations were baseless, but my mom's friends still have criminal records today.”

My friend Di told me this story as an example of how the police were keen to arrest and charge civilians for anything, as a way of earning more money and chasing promotions.
One of my English students, Juan, recalled that his mother and father would never write down anybody's name, address or phone number, but memorise them by heart; a habit they still have today.
One of the ways in which the regime rounded up 'subversives' was by locating the address books of suspects, and then raiding the homes of every name listed in them.
Many of these people, whose only crime was to be listed in a book, were forced to sign false confessions and then thrown naked from a plane into the freezing Atlantic Ocean.
Pablo Caraballo, one of the few soldiers who spoke about their crimes, revealed that the physically able 'subversives' had their stomach sliced open beforehand, in the hope that they would attract sharks. All in the name of promoting catholic values, of course.

Another friend told me that her father, a soldier, had worked at the notorious ESMA detention centre during the dictatorship, and denied (to her) being complicit in torture on the grounds that he 'knew where not to look.”
As in Nazi Germany, or Soviet Russia, or any other miserable, extremist regime, this same principle was applied to your friends and neighbours. If the secret police came knocking next door, you stayed inside and turned up the TV. If they were dragged off into the night, they must have been subversives; they probably deserved it.
She speculates that her father's complicity was not due to his professed admiration of the 'military solution', but really due to his poor financial situation, and the good wage and lifestyle that soldiers were afforded in the military (presumably paid for by the civilian taxpayers).

Many of those responsible for orchestrating the lawless genocide were rounded up and sent to trial in the mid 80's, before being released (and pardoned) a few years later by Carlos Menem, a spineless president keen to pacify the military and prevent another coup.
In modern day Argentina, there are still many, even outside the church and the military, who defend the actions of the dictatorship.
“People forget that the left side were killing people too, with their bombs”, said Maria, another one of my English students. “Maybe the military did some bad things, but it was war, the left side should be sent to trial as well.”
Overlooking the obvious fact that most of the leftist extremists (and their families, associates, milkmen and paperboys) were denied trial in favour of being tortured to death, Maria's opinions seem telling of the cause of this civil conflict, and many others.
Argentine politics is still very much divided by 'right and left', with an evident partisanship for either side. Hence, those who defended the actions of the military, some even going so far as to take to the streets and protest against the trials of torturers and mass murderers, are merely 'supporting their side', with the same fervor and conviction that one might see at a Boca Juniors vs River Plate football match.

Military dictator Jorge Videla put it much better than I ever could when he was asked (by journalist Christopher Hitchins) about the arrest and disappearance of a young female who had attended a peaceful anti-government protest in her wheelchair. “Terrorism is not just activating a bomb, but activating ideas. It is not just the bomber but the ideologist who is the danger.”

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2 comments:

deli said...

Check out the film The Official Story (La Historia Oficial)

Tritonia said...

My congratulations for this note, Sam. Very deep and moving.