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Wednesday, March 4, 2015
- In a ceremony outside of the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) – the most notorious detention centre operated by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship – President Néstor Kirchner apologised in the name of the state for the silence that has surrounded the atrocities committed by the de facto regime.
In a ceremony outside of the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA) – the most notorious detention centre operated by Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship – President Néstor Kirchner apologised in the name of the state for the silence that has surrounded the atrocities committed by the de facto regime.
On the 28th anniversary of the coup d’etat that gave rise to one of Latin America’s bloodiest dictatorships – some 30,000 dissidents were ”disappeared”, according to human rights groups – Kirchner lived up to two promises he had made to human rights activists.
First, he ordered the army chief Wednesday to remove the portraits of former dictators Jorge Videla and Reynaldo Bignone from a gallery in the Military School – a gesture demanded by activists for the past two decades.
In a second ceremony, held outside ESMA, he officially handed over the 19-hectare naval complex to local human rights organisations, which will convert it into a memorial museum.
Visibly moved after hearing speeches by young people who were born in ESMA when their parents were held there as political prisoners, Kirchner told the crowd that ”I have come as the president, to apologise in the name of the Argentine state for having remained silent regarding such atrocities during 20 years of democracy.”
”Those who committed such macabre and sinister acts” in clandestine detention centres like ESMA ”have only one name: they are murderers, repudiated by all Argentines,” said Kirchner, to loud applause by the relatives of victims, represented by groups like the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Shortly before Emiliano Hueravillo, a young man who was born in ESMA, went up on stage to speak, he told IPS that his parents were abducted and taken to the detention centre, and never heard from again.
His mother, Mirta Alonso, was seven-months pregnant when she was taken away. When he was four-months old, he was left at the Pedro de Elizalde hospital with a letter that gave his name and those of his parents.
Standing nearby, Karina Castro could hardly talk, she was so choked up. But she managed to tell IPS that her mother, Graciela Campolongo, was taken from her grandmother’s home in 1976. Although the three-year-old Graciela was there, she remembers nothing.
”I don’t know if she was at ESMA because we never heard anything more from her. But I came because I believe this place is a symbol for all of us,” said Karina.
At least 5,000 of the disappeared were held at some point in ESMA, where the officers’ club served as the torture centre. Many of the political prisoners who survived their torture sessions and ”interrogations” ended up being drugged and thrown alive into the sea from airplanes.
Juan Cabandié, 26, who like Emiliano was born in ESMA, said he only found out his real identity two months ago, thanks to the efforts of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
”I always knew my name was Juan,” he said, referring to the name his mother gave him when he was born in a clandestine detention centre, and which he now uses.
Hundreds of babies born to the disappeared were stolen and raised by military families.
The ceremony outside of ESMA ended with three songs: ‘La Memoria’ (Memory) and ‘Todavía cantamos’ (We Are Still Singing) performed by Argentine singer-songwriters León Gieco and Víctor Heredia, respectively; and ‘Para la libertad’ (For Freedom), by Spanish singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat.
Two hours before the ceremony, human rights groups hung banners with the photos of thousands of disappeared on the bars surrounding ESMA.
Mabel Gutiérrez, a member of the group Relatives of Political Prisoners and the Disappeared, read out a message that stated that ”the president’s political decision and the 28 years of struggle by the human rights groups to keep alive the memory of what happened made it possible” for ESMA to become ”the property of all Argentines” today.
Mario Villani, who attended Wednesday’s ceremonies, was one of a group of around 30 torture survivors who toured ESMA last Friday with Kirchner.
Villani spent time in five different torture centres during the dictatorship. The last place he was held in was ESMA, from which he was not released until 1981.
”I think I survived because I’m a physicist, and I know something about electronics, so they used me to fix TV sets and other household appliances that they stole,” he told IPS, referring to the furnishings that the armed forces took from the homes of political prisoners, which were stored in an ESMA warehouse.
Villani commented to IPS that when he ”returned to the world of the living” – he refuses to say he was ”freed” because the Navy continued to keep surveillance over him – he thought he would want to kill one of his torturers with his own hands.
But that hatred, he explained, was transformed into a desire to fight against impunity, and to make sure that those responsible for the human rights crimes were brought to justice.
For rights groups, the removal of the portraits of the former dictators from the walls of the Military School and the hand-over of ESMA were two victories in their long struggle for justice.
There were a few signs of resistance by the military to Wednesday’s events. The portraits of the former dictators which were removed by General Roberto Bendini in the Military School were actually amplified photos in gold frames put up hastily Tuesday after the original oil paintings mysteriously vanished.
The ceremony itself, in which Kirchner stated that the democratic ”order in Argentina must never again be subverted,” was boycotted by a small group of officers.
Although Bendini had suggested taking down the pictures prior to the anniversary of the coup, and in private, the president insisted on making it a public event to mark Mar. 24.
In addition, despite the fact that Navy chief, Admiral Jorge Godoy admitted this month for the first time that ”aberrant” acts were committed in ESMA during the ”dirty war”, several Navy officers opposed the hand-over of the naval school.
The centre-left Kirchner, who belongs to the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, has taken a proactive stance on human rights since he took office last May.
The president, who was himself an activist in the Peronist Youth, and who belongs to the generation of many of the disappeared leftists, said at his inauguration that he was coming to the government as ”a son of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo.”
”I form part of a decimated generation, which was castigated with painful absences,” said the president, who was himself briefly imprisoned twice during the dictatorship, and who saw many of his friends and fellow activists disappear.
On his first day in office, on May 26, Kirchner ordered 27 army generals, 13 admirals and 12 brigadier-generals into retirement, in an unprecedented purge of the military brass.
He later overturned a decree that blocked the extradition of former members of the military wanted by foreign courts in connection with the disappearance in Argentina of citizens from Spain, Italy and other countries.
At the president’s behest, Congress annulled last August the amnesty laws that in the late 1980s put an end to prosecutions of junior officers and soldiers who were deemed to be ”following orders” when they committed human rights crimes.
After the amnesty laws were revoked, the courts reopened human rights cases that had been closed in the late 1980s.
Last Monday, a federal judge declared unconstitutional the 1990 pardons granted by then-president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) to the former members of the dictatorship’s ruling junta, who had already been tried and sentenced.