Thursday, 11 December 2008

The visit to ESMA.

This is the difficult one. ESMA, Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, the naval engineering school, became one of the main detention centres in Buenos Aires in the mid-70s, although only one building in an extensive campus was used for torture and detention. It has been turned into the Instituto Espacio Para La Memoria, a space for memory, for truth and justice, with the aim of researching abuses and state terrorism, making sure that the abuses are documented and remembered, and that the fight for justice continues. Tours are organised regularly in English and Spanish: contact I was directed to it by Francesca, a friend and human rights researcher, who visited earlier this year.

It's a very chilling visit, as if the experiences of the detainees continue to disturb the place, and the explanations of the guide amplify this. But one central fact is the pact of silence among the military. The survivors have testified, and their evidence has been tested and collected, but none of the many military personnel directly involved, or who knew what was going on, will speak, with few exceptions. We were told that just one or two have: during a trial two years ago, one member of the military broke ranks and gave evidence – and 'disappeared' shortly afterwards. &, after a few high-profile trials in the 1980s, there were several military uprisings, and the military received a complete amnesty.

Our guide obviously could have talked to us for hours and answered endless questions. The depth of research is impressive and convincing, but there remain many unanswerable questions: a military that was unaccountable, out of control, trained/indoctrinated by the School of the Americas, behaving as if it was in a self-justifying state of mind akin to mass hysteria, and supported by a Catholic Church. (We were told it was the Catholic Church that recommended the drugging of detainees before they were thrown out of aircraft into the ocean.) Possibly some 30,000 humans became 'desaparecidos' between 1976 and 1983, the majority young men, and most of them between 1976 and 1978. The 1984 government report, Nunca Mas, can be read in English here.

The surface of life in Buenos Aires is confident, relaxed, successful, but that era is a disquieting presence. The torturers and murderers still live free, the families still have to live with their losses and no justice. The military was predominant from 1930 until 1983, and even the Peron years of elected government were influenced by European fascism. Then the military, dressed in its fancy uniforms, saw itself as the salvation of the country by 'el Proceso', the process of national reorganisation, and left the country in social and economic turmoil, from which it is slowly recovering. But the will for justice and democracy has been strengthened by the memory of that past, by the work of the researchers who have done their best to ensure 'Nunca Mas', never again.

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