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House of Horror

Human Rights

It was once the largest concentration camp in Latin America. But on 24 March 2004 Argentinean President Néstor Kirchner confirmed that the Naval Mechanical School, known locally as ESMA, would be transformed into a ‘museum of memory’.

Argentineans were dazed. For the first time, they would be able to enter the infamous 17-hectare site where an estimated 5,000 people were tortured and murdered during the country’s 1976-83 military dictatorship. In total more than 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ during the junta’s rule.

In recent years our society has reached a turning point. A new framework has opened up within which it is possible to revise history

Speaking just outside the ESMA grounds, Kirchner asked for pardon on behalf of the state for ‘the shame of having hidden so many atrocities during 20 years of democracy’ after the dictatorship. He was followed on the platform by Juan Cabandié who told the crowd that he was one of those born in the ESMA cells.

Juan’s mother Alicia was among dozens of pregnant women held in the building. When these women gave birth some of them were killed, drugged and tossed into the River Plate, their babies seized by the military.

Juan Cabandié, now 27, is one of those stolen children, among perhaps 400 others. Until two years ago he wasn’t even called Juan. It was then that the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization dedicated to looking for stolen children, confirmed with DNA analysis that his parents had been detained in ESMA and that Alicia – who was just 17 years old at the time – wanted him to be called Juan. He refers to this as the day of his ‘appearance’.

‘I changed my name,’ Juan tells me in a Buenos Aires café, calmer now than on that day of his emotional speech at ESMA. ‘It’s an inexplicable sensation which few people have lived through. I discovered my parents and found the truth. Now I am free.’

Juan was torn from Alicia’s arms after she had breastfed him for 15 days. ‘When she had me in her arms, my mother believed that we’d all soon be together: she, my father Damián and I,’ he says. He was told these details by four cell-mates who, unlike Alicia, were eventually freed. ‘My mother didn’t distance herself from me. She showed me with pride to her cell-mates in the concentration camp.’

Juan was taken to a police officer – whom he thought of as his father for more than 20 years and whom he now never wants to see again – and his wife, who gave him an almost military education. There began a process of constructing an identity that eliminated all memory of his past. Juan was brought up to hate the human-rights groups that would eventually help him to discover the truth. When he played near ESMA as a child, he would salute the soldiers who guarded the building, without realizing that his real parents had once been locked inside.

Like Juan, many children of the disappeared were raised by adoptive families whose political and social values were opposite from those of their biological parents. As a result the shock of discovering their true identity is much more intense.

When he was a high-school student Juan used to hand out leaflets for Carlos Menem, the Argentinean President who from 1989 to 1999 buried the memory of state terrorism. Menem freed from prison the highest-ranking military officers responsible for the 1976 coup – and consolidated the foundations of an economic model first imposed by the dictatorship and later by the World Bank and the IMF.

‘At 19, I was very conservative, almost fascist. Then I saw a TV documentary in which a survivor approached ESMA and pointed to the window of the cell where he had been detained,’ says Juan. ‘I didn’t know that thousands of people had been held there.’ That revelation marked the beginning of a momentous personal shift, even before ‘finding’ his biological parents.

‘I began to look at what the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and other critical voices were saying – that there was a strong link between the dictatorship and conservative economic policies. I told myself that perhaps they were right – at first a little fearfully,’ Juan remembers. ‘Then, on the night of 19 December 2001, in the midst of the débâcle [the national protest against the country’s failing economy], I found myself in the Plaza de Mayo and I understood that I no longer identified with the values of my adoptive parents.’

‘And then I had a crazy idea,’ he recalls. ‘I told myself for the first time: “Perhaps I am a child of the disappeared.”’ His suspicions lasted two years. ‘The day the Grandmothers confirmed my “appearance” I said to myself: “I’ve succeeded, I’ve finished my search; I was not mistaken.” I also knew that that revelation of my identity was a hinge in my history. On that day a new stage of grief and pain began.’

The children of the disappeared, whose struggle to construct a memory of the years of terror was treated with indifference during the 1990s, now find themselves in a society that is more disposed to listen. According to Juan, the economic logic of the dictatorship – which continued to exercise power during the Menem decade – ‘denied Argentineans the possibility of reflecting on the dictatorship.’

Our generation – Juan’s and mine, too – was oriented more towards consumerism than political commitment. But with the recent economic collapse there has been a shift.

‘In recent years our society has reached a turning point,’ says Juan. ‘A new framework has opened up within which it is possible to revise history. People are beginning to come together, to think as a collective.’

The emblematic facelift of the ESMA building is an example of this historic shift. ‘In Argentina new winds are blowing that favour memory,’ Juan notes. Beginning in March 2004 the Kirchner Government, along with the City of Buenos Aires, held a series of meetings with human rights organizations, trade unions, student centres and neighbourhood associations to present proposals for the construction of the memory museum on the ESMA site. In workshops the complexity of memory was analysed and approaches to truth debated. Whose voices should be heard? How to represent the torture rooms?

Estela Carlotto, president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, stressed that the museum should be both a record of the disappeared and ‘an educational site for future generations’. For his part, Juan dreams of a space for art and education where ‘memory might be present – a place that might construct life’.

The process of returning the concentration camp to society has only just begun. The debates around the future museum now produce as many agreements as disagreements. The army left part of the site last December and is due to vacate completely by the end of 2005. Last June, the first information signs were erected to explain to future visitors the experience of those who were tortured in the camp.

In the meantime, on 14 June, the Argentinean Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional a series of laws that had protected hundreds of military leaders and their cronies from trial for their crimes. The old idea (promoted during the transition to democracy in the 1980s under threat of a military uprising) that so-called ‘governability’ could only be safeguarded by forgetting the atrocities from the past has been dismissed. The way is now clear for new trials against the architects of the dictatorship.

In July forensic anthropologists, backed by a Federal Court and human rights organizations, finally recovered the remains of Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. She was kidnapped in 1977 while she was looking for her ‘disappeared’ son and later taken to ESMA before being flung to the ocean from a military aircraft. This was the first scientific proof of the ‘death flights’ – most of which took off from ESMA.

Neither individuals nor nations can survive without a clear view of the past. Says Juan Cabandié: ‘The best thing about having found the truth is that I now know who I am and where I come from. I know what I will say to my children; I can now construct an identity.’ Perhaps one day, with the new memory museum, Argentinean society will be free to make the same claim. •

Tomás Bril Mascarenhas is a political science student at the University of Buenos Aires and a former volunteer with the New Internationalist.

New Internationalist issue 385 magazine cover This article is from the December 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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