Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands is on a State Visit to Argentina from 30 March to 1 April, accompanied by her son, Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, and his Argentinian-born wife, Princess Maxima. However, just before their visit got underway, the South American nation was still focusing more on remembering the fact that a military coup took place exactly 30 years ago, this month.
Three decades on, human rights organisations and others are still trying to find the remains of the many thousands of Argentinians who ‘disappeared’ under the rule of military dictator General Jorge Videla.
“All the horrors are engraved in the memory,” were the words sung by Argentinian protest singer Leon Gieco just recently on the Plaza del Mayo in the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires. The emotion was shared by a crowd of some 1000 people, there to mark the bloody military coup of 1976, as they sang along with him.
Human rights organisations estimate the number of victims of the former military regime at around 30,000. The authorities maintained for a long time that the number of dead and disappeared was 10,000, but they now acknowledge that the real figure was much higher. The Argentinian secret service’s own records speak of some 22,000 victims, says Patricia Vasquez of Memoria Abierta, an umbrella organisation of five Argentinian human rights groups.
The Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF), a non-governmental organisation for forensic anthropology, has been trying for years to identify as many anonymous victims as possible using archives and records kept across the country. EAAF researcher Miguel Nieva explains: “Our aim is to find out the historic truth and to offer the victims’ relatives certainty as to what happened to their family members.” So far, the EAAF has managed to track down the remains of more than 1000 people who ‘disappeared’ under military rule.
An EAAF team is now looking for remains at Chacarita cemetery, on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. One badly maintained part of the immense burial ground is home to dozens of anonymous graves, or “NNs” (No Names), as they are known to the team. The weed-covered graves are first marked, and then the earth is carefully removed so any human remains uncovered can be checked in a laboratory with DNA material supplied by members of the victims’ families.
It’s highly possible that the people buried here lost their lives at the Escuela Superior de Mecanica de la Armada (ESMA), a naval school in Buenos Aires which functioned as the main torture centre under the dictatorship. It was also here that the infamous ‘vuelos de la muerte’ were organised; the ‘flights of death’ in which military aircraft flew drugged prisoners out to sea where they were thrown to their deaths.
The ESMA was also a place where children were literally stolen. The newborn babies of pregnant women were taken away and given to military families. A total of some 500 babies were stolen in this way. The ESMA is now empty and undergoing conversion to become a museum about the period of the dictatorship.
At the time of the military regime there were more than 300 clandestine torture centres operating throughout Argentina. In Buenos Aires, for example, the police ran a secret detention centre, known as ‘Club Atletico’, in one of the city’s rundown suburbs.
It was knocked down before the restoration of civilian government to make way for a road, but the cellars where people were detained are now being uncovered for investigation, because most of the 1500 people held here during the year it functioned as a detention centre were never seen again.
Praise for Kirchner
With regard to the country’s military past, the EAAF has praise for the policy pursued by Argentina’s President Nestor Kirchner. Miguel Nieva says the Kirchner government is the first since the end of military rule that has made human rights part of its policy and also supports the work done by organisations such as the EAAF. However, he believes the police and judicial authorities could speed up the work of bringing the perpetrators of the past to justice, for a considerable number of the military who committed the crimes are still at liberty.
The prosecution of such people is now in the pipeline, but as long as that still hasn’t happened, many relatives of those who disappeared won’t file an official report with the authorities in fear of reprisals by those same military figures.
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