Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Buenos Aires

Wall paintings at the OIimpio site.

One of the Olimpio torture chambers.
I'm in Buenos Aires this week, attending the conference of the International Association of Genocide Scholars.
Today, a group of us went to visit the detention centres known as Olimpo and ESMA. These are places where political prisoners were tortured and subsequently murdered by the military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.  Both of these places are in the city of Buenos Aires.
Olimpo, where we went in the morning, is located in one of the neighbourhoods of the city. It used to be a tram station. In 1978 and 1979, about 500 people were taken there to be tortured. Only about 100 survived. ESMA, where we went in the afternoon, was the Naval Academy. Some 5,000 people passed through the place, of whom only about 250 survived. Most of the victims were tortured and then dropped from airplanes into the ocean.
We were told about how in recent years Argentina has become committed to bringing the perpetrators to justice, after decades of impunity. Several of the torturers at Olimpo were recently convicted - men in their 60s and 70s - and sentence to life imprisonment.
At ESMA, we saw the special cells where the pregnant women were taken, so that they could deliver babies before being murdered. The babies were then given to people associated with the torturers. There are perhaps 500 children who were raised by families that were, in some way or another, complicit in the murder of their mothers. Now the children, who are in their 30s, are reclaiming their identities and finding their natural grand-parents, brothers and sisters and cousins.
One of our group asked why they would spare the children. But I think that the explanation is that this was political murder, rather than ethnic or racial genocide. According to the perverse code of values of the perpetrators, the children were innocent, whereas their parents were evil subversives who deserved their terrible fates. Where genocide is driven by racial or ethnic hatred and the desire to exterminate the racial or ethnic group, we see the children - indeed the children above all - being victimised. At Nuremberg, Otto Ohlendorf, who headed one of the Eiunsatzgruppen units, explained that the children had to be murdered so that they would not return as adults and fight the Nazis.
Here in Buenos Aires it is winter. While yesterday was a lovely day, today it was rainy and miserable. It seemed fitting, given what we did. I feel terrible depressed about the stories we heard, and of the persecution that these victims - many of them quite heroic - suffered in their struggle for democratic governance and human rights. The people of Argentina - or at least those we met today - seem still to be traumatised by their past. The trials now underway are a part of their efforts to deal with the past, and to ensure that it never repeats itself.
This was the classic case of enforced disappearance, a method that dates back to Hitler's Nacht und nebel decree, and even before. Tens of thousands of political activists, most of them young, disappeared in Argentina during the 1976-1983 period. The contemporary discourse in Argentina describes the violence as 'State terrorism'. The killings are generally characterised as a campaign of 'extermination'.


Luís Paulo said...

Argentina has done well in the last years to bring to justice those who committed crimes during its dictatorship. In Brazil, where the current president was herself tortured during the military regime, we still refuse to bring criminals to justice - our Supreme Court has ruled that our amnesty law prohibits any criminal prosecution. We have since been condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but nothing has changed. A law proposal to create a truth commission is not going anywhere in Congress and many still think that prosecuting torturers is some kind of "revenge" that will only bring back a past we would rather forget through a sort of collective amnesia.
Argentina is setting a good example for this continent, as is Peru and Uruguay. I feel ashamed that Brazil has taken a wrong turn on this issue.

Florencia Montal said...

Much of the discourse about human rights abuses during the Argentine military dictatorship, even from the current government which is deeply committed to justice for the dirty war abuses, uses the term 'genocide' to describe what happened and military leaders are labeled as 'genocidaires'. I wonder if, technically, that is a proper use of the concept or if crimes against humanity would be more appropriate (i.e. the Rome Statute lists forced disappearances among crimes against humanity). Of course, the word used to describe those crimes won't alter their horrific nature...I am just wondering whether the legal figures are being applied properly, specially in the context of actual judicial processes going on.