|Wall paintings at the OIimpio site.|
|One of the Olimpio torture chambers.|
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'.