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RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: What to Do With the School of Horror

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 22 2004 (IPS) - It is now up to a coalition of human rights groups in Argentina to decide what to do with ESMA, the most notorious torture centre operated by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

It is now up to a coalition of human rights groups in Argentina to decide what to do with ESMA, the most notorious torture centre operated by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.

”When she went into labour, they took her down to the basement of ESMA (the Navy School of Mechanics), where the torture room and infirmary were located,” says an account by two of the few survivors of the clandestine detention centre.

The story of María del Carmen Moyano, one of the numerous political prisoners to give birth in ESMA, comes from the report ”Never Again”, written in 1984 by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons.

The testimony was given by Sara Solarz de Osatinsky and Ana María Marti. They were held at ESMA along with Moyano, who gave birth to a baby girl. The baby was stolen by a non-commissioned army officer, and both mother and daughter remain ”disappeared”.

Today, ESMA is about to be handed over by the Navy and human rights organisations will turn it into a museum aimed at keeping alive the memory of the ”dirty war” against real or suspected dissidents.


One of the main symbols of the repression, ESMA, and especially the officers’ social club, located in the centre of Buenos Aires, bore mute witness to the torture inflicted on some 5,000 political prisoners who passed through the Navy school, most of whom are ”disappeared”.

A handful of survivors gave their testimony, which was compiled in the report ”Never Again”.

Human rights organisations successfully pressed the government to dislodge the Navy from ESMA and hand over the 19-hectare grounds, on which 15 buildings are located. Part of the complex will be turned into a memorial museum, but rights groups have yet to decide what to do with the rest of the installations.

Survivors did not think they would ever see the day. Even the most sceptical are now enthusiastic about participating in the ceremonies and events surrounding the hand-over.

The huge plot of land belonged to the city of Buenos Aires, but was ceded to the Navy in 1924 for the construction of a military school, on the understanding that the complex would be returned to the city government once it no longer fulfilled that function.

In 1998, then-president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) signed a decree for the buildings to be demolished and for a large park to be created on the site, with a monument aimed at the ”reconciliation” of the Argentine public.

But human rights groups opposed to the demolition obtained a court injunction that blocked implementation of the decree, although the buildings continued to be occupied by the Navy.

Now the centre-left government of Néstor Kirchner has ordered that the complex be handed back to the city government, which has long supported the aim of activists to create a remembrance museum.

The official announcement of the transfer of the property will occur on Wednesday, the 28th anniversary of the coup d’etat that gave rise to one of the bloodiest dictatorships in Latin America. Although according to the official count, 9,000 people were ”disappeared” by the security forces, human rights groups put the number at 30,000.

Kirchner promised the survivors and families of the victims that ESMA ”will be a space for memory” in which human rights groups will decide what to do with the installations.

The only thing that the organisations have decided so far is to create a memorial museum. The rest of the details are still being debated.

”The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. took five years of discussion and debate. We can’t be expected to reach a decision in 15 days,” activist Mabel Gutiérrez told IPS.

The rights group to which Gutiérrez belongs, Relatives of Political Disappeared-Detainees, forms part of the Open Memory umbrella group along with eight other organisations.

The umbrella group, created to keep alive the memory of state terrorism, has been working on various projects since 1999, including archives of oral testimonies, written documents, and photos, as well as a ”topography of memory” programme.

The projects are aimed at bringing visibility to the more than 300 clandestine detention centres where the dictatorship held and tortured political prisoners.

The plan for the ESMA remembrance museum, for which families have contributed documents, photos and personal objects of victims, forms part of the ”topography of memory” project.

Political prisoners gave birth there and were allowed to raise their babies for weeks or even months before the women were killed and the babies were given in ”adoption” to their captors or to other families with ties to the regime.

”The Museum We Want” was the title of the first conference held five years ago by Open Memory to discuss, with experts in museology and human rights activists, what to do with ESMA.

”We believed it would happen in 20 to 30 years,” Gutiérrez admitted.

Open Memory has even registered the projected museum with the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, which links roughly a dozen sites that have become memorials to genocide, war or oppression and discrimination in several countries

The rights groups have not yet reached agreement on restoring the installations to the state they were in when the detention centre was operating in the officers’ club, and there is even less agreement on the presentation for visitors who tour the museum and on the objects and photos to be put on exhibit.

The activists and organisations must also decide what to do with the rest of the buildings.

However, they all agree that the grounds and installations must be totally handed over, to avoid the need to coexist alongside the Navy.

Survivors also say they were taken in chains to other buildings on the grounds; that helicopters bringing in detainees landed in the central plaza of the complex; and that the bodies of those who died under torture were incinerated in the sports field.

”I’m sure we’ll reach an agreement,” said Gutiérrez with regards to the differing opinions on what use should be given to each building.

Two weeks ago, Navy chief Admiral Juan Godoy admitted for the first time that ESMA was ”a symbol of barbarity” where ”aberrant” practices were carried out.

In a public ceremony, he said the president had asked the Navy to hand over the facilities where five schools provide training to the military and civilians, and to transfer the educational institutions to installations in another part of Buenos Aires before year’s end.

Last Friday, Kirchner, who has taken a proactive stance on human rights since taking office in May 2003, met with around 30 survivors of the ESMA torture centre to tour the grounds.

Arm-in-arm or embracing each other, the former political prisoners, including both men and women, kept a tight check on their emotions as they visited the site of their suffering.

For many it was their first time back since their release. ”It’s like bringing a story to a close,” said Manuel Franco, who spent 46 days in ESMA in 1979.

According to human rights groups, around 100 survivors of ESMA are living in Argentina or abroad. The rest of those who passed through the installations are ”disappeared”.

The man who was ultimately responsible for ESMA, former junta member and ex-admiral Emilio Massera, is under house arrest in connection with the theft of babies of political prisoners.

In 1995, repentant former Navy captain Adolfo Scilingo shocked public opinion around the world when he revealed that political prisoners held in ESMA were thrown alive into the sea from aircraft, as published in the book ”The Flight” by journalist and activist Horacio Verbitsky.

ESMA was also a hub of other criminal activities that accompanied the dictatorship’s policy of abductions, torture and murder of dissidents: the theft of the property of political prisoners and the falsification of documents.

On the grounds was located a warehouse where the fruits of the plunder were stored, including the furniture and household appliances stolen from the homes of political prisoners, which were sold or divvied up among members of the military.

A printing press comprised of stolen machinery was also found at ESMA, where documents were forged. In addition, there was a ”real estate” office, which illegally transferred the victims’ property to a front company that was created by a group of Navy officers.

On Wednesday, the 28th anniversary of the coup, families and survivors will hang banners with images of the disappeared on the fence surrounding ESMA. They will then enter the grounds to take part in the ceremony in which Kirchner will formally announce the hand-over of the installations.

The ceremony will end with a concert given by Argentine singer-songwriters León Gieco and Víctor Heredia and Spanish singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat.

The event will be the first step towards the reconstruction of a painful past.

 
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RIGHTS-ARGENTINA: What to Do With the School of Horror

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 22 2004 (IPS) - It is now up to a coalition of human rights groups in Argentina to decide what to do with ESMA, the most notorious torture centre operated by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
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