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Today, 2nd April, Argentina remembers the veterans and the fallen of the Malvinas/Falklands Islands war of 1982. But 28 years on, the truth about what really happened on those islands is still being uncovered via the belated testimonies of traumatised veterans. Battling against a better-equipped British army, extreme cold, and constant hunger, some soldiers also claim to have been tortured by their own superiors.
“I was in my tent when they grabbed me and forced my head into a water tank. It had ice in it, and they held me down for a bit and shouted ‘are you going on guard duty or not?’, I said ‘yes’, and they pressed my head in again… I couldn’t breathe.”
Juan de la Cruz Martins was one of the veterans in the province of Corrientes who were among the first to report officers for torture against their own troops. Like many that were sent to the Malvinas, he was a conscript, young and poorly trained compared to the British forces. He says he was attacked by his second lieutenant for falling asleep after being physically unable to stand on guard for 24 hours without food.
Other conscripts suffered even more traumatic punishments. In a documentary filmed for Canal 12 last year, veteran Miguel Savage describes how his patrol came across a young soldier who had been staked to the ground by his own corporal.
“It was 8th June. We went out early – it was minus 20 degrees and everything was white. And we saw a soldier pegged to the ground. Our sergeant – who was a good man – ordered us to untie the soldier. We tried to resuscitate him as he was semi-unconscious […] who knows how long he had been there out in the open.”
These so-called estaqueos involved soldiers being pegged to the wet mud with arms and legs spread for hours or even days. They were completely exposed to the hostile South Atlantic weather and, in some cases, the British artillery bombardment.
In many of the accusations, the victim had been caught sleeping while on guard duty or stealing provisions – crimes motivated by chronic fatigue and desperation due to hunger.
“We lived in terrible conditions,” explains Ernesto Alonso, secretary for institutional relations at the Centre for Ex-Combatants of the Malvinas Islands in La Plata. “We didn’t have adequate equipment or sufficient intake of food to survive the cold temperatures. We were in a situation of extreme hunger […] so we robbed food or killed sheep.”
Some of those who weren’t able to obtain more food died of malnutrition in their trenches. According to Dr. Pablo Andres Vassel, who presented 23 testimonies to the Federal Court in Río Grande (in the province of Tierra del Fuego, to which the Malvinas islands belong according to the Argentine constitution) in April 2007, this should not be considered an inevitable consequence of the war but of an unfair distribution of food and negligence on behalf of those in charge.
“Not one officer died of hunger,” argues the former undersecretary for human rights in Corrientes, “yet next to them were the soldiers, of whom at least three died [of starvation].”
Isaac De Bórtoli, another of the veterans from Corrientes whose testimony formed part of the original investigation into maltreatment of conscripts in the Malvinas, says he lost of 20kg during the 74-day conflict. “I went weighing about 82-84 kilos, and came back with just 58kg”.
But when the malnourished soldiers returned to mainland Argentina, they were fattened up in military camps and pressured into signing forms that prevented them from talking about the war before being sent back to their families.
Shortly afterwards, the military regime fell, and as the country began to rebuild its democratic institutions, the Malvinas veterans found themselves neglected on all sides.
“We were relegated by society,” says Alonso, “the military didn’t take care of us, and at the start of the new democracy we were considered part of the military dictatorship. We didn’t have anything to do with that. We just went to fight for the sovereignty of the Malvinas because we were performing compulsory military service […] we were completely abandoned by the government.”
Forgotten by society, many veterans formed support groups to deal with the traumas they suffered. But many were unable to cope: according to CECIM, over 500 veterans have committed suicide since the end of hostilities, almost equal to the number of casualties recorded on the islands themselves. And still the atrocities of the conflict were unmentionable.
Dr. Vassel explains how the silence was broken in 2005 at a screening of ‘Iluminados por el Fuego’ (Enlightened by Fire), a hard-hitting film based on the experiences of Malvinas veteran Edgardo Esteban.
“At the end of the film I asked some veterans in the audience what they thought of it. They said it was good, but it stopped short in showing the enormous magnitude of cruel and inhumane treatment suffered by soldiers at the hands of their superiors.”
After the original testimonies were presented to the court in Río Grande three years ago, more reports of abuse started to come in from around the country. “When the judge came to ratify the original testimonies, there were around 15 new denunciations, and from then on there has been a steady trickle of new cases, which have now reached over a hundred in total,” says Vassel.
Crimes Against Humanity?
Now more than 70 former military officers are being investigated for violating the human rights of their own troops before and during the Malvinas conflict. Some of those charged also face trial over human rights abuses during the military dictatorship.
In June last year, the Federal Chamber in Comodoro Rivadavia ratified the decision of the judges in charge of the investigation that the abuse of conscripts during the Malvinas war should be classified as crimes against humanity, the same as those committed against the Argentine population during the Dirty War of 1976-83.
In November 2009, however, the national court of appeal upheld the claims of the defence teams in two of the reported cases that the actions of the officers were not part of a systematic or premeditated attack against their own troops, and therefore did not conform to crimes against humanity.*
One of the defendants is Jorge Taranto, the second lieutenant accused by Juan de la Cruz Martins of water torture and other abuses. He welcomed the ruling, telling Radio Fueguina in November that the investigation was a “pantomime” and claiming that Martins wasn’t even a soldier under his command and was offered money to file a complaint.
Others are also sceptical of the recent surge in accusations. Colonel Martiniano Duarte tells me that it has become “fashionable” for ex-conscripts to accuse their own superiors in recent years, adding that the problems between officers and soldiers only emerged in the post-war period when the Malvinas war was swept under the carpet by the new democratic government.
‘Remembrance, Truth and Justice’
Dr. Vassel, however, says that now is the first time that veterans feel able to come forward and that the country is ready to listen. “In the 80s, Argentina went through a process of ‘de-Malvinasation’. Then the 90s was the decade of impunity, when the military junta was pardoned. Now we are in the time of remembrance, truth and justice.”
On 2nd April, Argentina will remember. The search for truth and justice is only just beginning.
*[Update: In February 2015, Argentina’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal from CECIM to treat the accusations as crimes against humanity, thereby effectively closing the case. CECIM says it will now take the appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.]