by Saskia van Alphen
- Argentina -
The terrain of the Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (the ESMA or Navy Mechanics School) has been open to the public for a year now. Once one of the biggest detention and torture centers during the last military dictatorship in Argentina (March 1976 to December 1983), it is now being transformed into the Space for Memory and the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights. The initiative is jointly sponsored by the national government and the city government of Buenos Aires. The management of the Space for Memory also includes representatives from 14 social organizations, such as the Mothers of the Disappeared, HIJOS (Children), various human right organizations and ex-prisoners of the ESMA, who have an important counseling roll.
By keeping the buildings as they are, the center’s planners are giving them the status of commemorative monuments, and opening a museum that will document the dictatorship, the years preceding the coup and the consequences of the military regime. Other buildings will house a library and archive, as well as provide offices for human rights and other organizations concerned with those years of repression.
After some investigation, I obtained an email address and applied for a guided visit. It takes some time to find the entrance to the site, which is surrounded by a large fence. When I arrive, a man named Victor awaits those of us who have requested access and starts the tour immediately.
“I was imprisoned here for 4 years and 4 months. On August 10, 1979 at 10:30am, they came into my house and took me, my wife and our 2 month old child. They beat me up, put a sack over my head and chained my feet. We were pushed into a car,” Victor tell us.
Around 5,000 people were held prisoner in the ESMA, most of them 'disappeared'. Only around 200 to 300 managed to survive. In total, 30,000 people disappeared in Argentina during the years of the military regime. Generally they were very young - 58% were between 21 and 30 years old, over 80% were between 16 and 35. Most of them were workers or students; others were professionals, teachers, journalists and artists. Three percent were pregnant women whose babies, after being born in detention, were taken from them and adopted by military staff.
Most disappearances occurred between 1976 and 1978. Radical socialist groups had adored President Domingo Perón as their leader for his efforts to implement social reforms with the country’s worker unions during his first two terms. But the reforms cost him dearly when he was forced to flee to Spain in 1955 after a military coup. When hard times hit Argentina in the 1970s, the working class demanded his return, but ultimately they felt betrayed by the ultra-right political decisions of his wife Isabel, who assumed the presidency upon her husband’s death shortly after his return from exile. She served to enrich the well-established elite and did not consider the interests of the working class. The economic situation became severe, with inflation soaring 500% in one year. The socialist movement resorted to strikes and armed action as the only way to make a statement. To control the situation, President Isabel Perón empowered the military forces in January 1975 to put an end to the defiance of left-wing guerillas.
Initially, the military only considered those who had challenged the armed forces of the state as ‘subversive’. However, once the military regime was officially installed in March 1976, the definition of a 'subversive person' extended to all people whose current or past actions and ideas were in some way a threat to the Christian, Western and capitalist values of modern Argentina. The repressors now aimed their assaults at all people who had participated in social, political or cultural activities that expressed their discontent with the current political situation, and in many cases, at the family and friends of those people.
The rooms Victor leads us through are all empty - even the walls have been knocked down and removed. But when Victor speaks, we are able to imagine what he experienced. A few of those in our group, like Nora, a woman in her mid-fifties who was 23 at the time of her kidnapping, reveal that they survived imprisonment at various military detention centers.“In the attic we were [supposed] to stay in a horizontal position at all times,” Victor explains. “Our spaces, just big enough to hold a human body, were divided by wooden T-shaped partitions. The guards were generally young guys, around 18 to 20 years old. Some of them didn't even allow us to move a limb and would kick us in the head if we did. Others were more kind. We taught ourselves a sort of sign language to be able to talk to each other. The radio was on 24 hours a day, as was the light. It was the radio station with the worse music ever! We were there for months, with nothing to do. I used to watch a ray of sunlight moving down on the chimney and would think, in that light, outside, my girl is playing.”
Prisoners were kept on the third floor, in the basement, and in the large attic of the Officials’ Casino. The basement and the attic were used for torture as well. Other parts of the building held items taken during the looting of the homes of the disappeared, the dormitories of the military staff, a few small offices, a library and an archive which were used for the falsification of documents and to administrate progress in the war against the ‘subversion.’
Even before the armed forces gained power in 1976, the ESMA had begun to operate as a clandestine detention. In January 1979, when the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights announced its intention to visit the ESMA, the Officials' Casino was 'redecorated' to conceal its activities. The prisoners were transported to an island in a nearby river delta and the commission did not report anything suspicious. After that visit, the ESMA’s activities resumed until the end of the military regime in 1983. Until 2004, when the Navy handed the property over to the state, the premises remained inaccessible to the public and were used for training purposes and other military activities.
In many ways it seems that Argentinean society has not yet been able to close this chapter of its history. The grandmothers still meet every Thursday afternoon on the Plaza de Mayo, trials take place to convict former military officials, and people still seem to disappear - like Julio Lopez, an important witness in one of those trials, who disappeared in 2006.
“I am on my guard – always,” Victor says. “Every time I leave my house, I check the cars that are on the street and I register which cars I don't recognize. When in a bar, I never seat myself with my back to the door. I have to be cautious; I am still being called as a witness in various trials.”
Many people, even those that were never involved politically, continue living in a state of distrust and wariness. My friend Diego gives me a bit of insight. “My father was a medical doctor. He had many friends [who were] officers in the military. He wasn't politically active at all - those were just his friends. Still, we were in danger and even received threat letters from left-wing radical organizations. I was raised with the warning to watch out not to step on any garbage bags because they might contain explosives. I am still cautious today.”
When I meet up with Nora a few days later, she tells me that she flew to Canada in the seventies after being liberated by the regime. She debates returning to Argentina.
“It is the only place that feels like home. At the same time, it is not the same country that I knew before. Argentina has changed a lot. When I left, people took action against injustice; they used to fight for their interests. Today it seems that people accept anything.”
I also speak with Vera Carnovale at Memoria Abierta (Open Memory), an organization that preserves the memory of this period of state terrorism and examines its effects throughout Argentine society. Most public discussions revolve around victims and oppressors, not around the social and political organization of the country. She argues that the ESMA site preservation is only one aspect of greater and more urgent questions: How could this happen in Argentinean society? What were the political and social predecessors of these actions? And most importantly, how can it be prevented from happening again?
- This article marks the beginning of a series that explores the consequences of Argentina's last dictatorship. Saskia will share the personal perspectives of people whose lives were permanently marked in different ways by the military regime. - Ed.
About the Author
Saskia van Alphen started her professional career in accounting and worked with one of the top 5 firms in the Netherlands, but was soon drawn to work that allowed greater participation in the social fabric of her country. For several years she worked for the Dutch government managing projects on the integration and participation of immigrant youth.
Saskia immigrated to Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2006 to broaden her horizons and immerse herself in Latin American culture. She is currently in her second year of Social Studies with a specialization in Art History at Universidad de Palermo and utilizes her language, communication and organizational skills as a freelancer for various organizations.