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ARGENTINA: ‘Memories Come Flooding Back’ – the Sinking of the Belgrano

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, May 2 2007 (IPS) - Néstor Vidaurre was born in the northwestern Argentine province of Jujuy, along the border with Bolivia. At the age of 18, he had never seen the sea and did not know how to swim when he was embarked on the warship General Belgrano, sunk by a British submarine 25 years ago during the short Malvinas/Falkland Islands war.

“It was a miracle (that I survived),” Vidaurre, who is now 43, told IPS. “Many other guys from Jujuy didn’t come back,” he added sadly.

The Belgrano had a crew of 1,093 men, mainly poorly-trained and badly-equipped young conscripts. Of that total, 323 were killed – most of them drowned – when the light cruiser was torpedoed. The victims made up half of Argentina’s total casualties in the three-month war, which ended with Argentina’s surrender on Jun. 10.

The sinking of the ship was a turning-point in the war. “Negotiations were under way to bring the conflict to an end, but after the attack on the warship, there was no turning back; it was as if the British had decided to blow up the bridges,” Ernesto Alonso, with the Centro de Ex Combatientes Islas Malvinas, a war veterans’ group, told IPS.

The Malvinas or Falklands Islands are located in the South Atlantic nearly 500 km to the east of southern Argentina. They have been occupied by Britain since 1833.

On May 2, 1982, one month after the military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983 sent troops to invade the islands and reclaim them, the Belgrano was 400 km from the islands. It had received orders to turn around after an air strike was cancelled.

There are voices in Argentina that argue that the attack on the Belgrano by the British nuclear-powered submarine, the Conqueror, was a war crime because the Argentine cruiser was heading back towards the mainland, and was outside of a British-declared exclusion zone around the islands.

But the captain of the Belgrano, Héctor Bonzo, who survived the sinking of his ship, has flatly ruled out that theory.

“It was absolutely not a war crime. It was an act of war, lamentably legal,” the captain said in an interview published by the Buenos Aires daily Clarín Wednesday, the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. “Since Apr. 30, I had had orders to shoot, and if the submarine had surfaced, I would have shot it till it sank,” said Bonzo.

The young conscripts on the ship had received little training and were poorly equipped for the war and the freezing temperatures of the South Atlantic as the southern hemisphere headed into winter.

The survivors remember picking up weapons when they embarked, and in the port of Ushuaia, in southern Argentina. They also had shooting practice on the Isla de los Estados (Staten Island), near the southern province of Tierra del Fuego.

“I’m from the province of Tucumán (in the north-central part of the country), and I was used to putting up with heat, but now with cold,” Raúl Barros, who survived the freezing water after jumping off the Belgrano wearing just pants, a shirt and boots, told IPS.

Like Vidaurre, Barros had never seen the ocean before he embarked from Puerto Belgrano, a port in the southern part of the province of Buenos Aires. “I was awestruck when I saw that blue expanse that I had only seen in photos, and the shipàso huge. I was scared, but everything functioned so well. I was assigned to the quartermaster’s store; it was my job to distribute food and coffee.”

The cruiser, which was built in 1938 in the United States, “was the second-biggest ship in the Argentine fleet after the Veinticinco de Mayo aircraft carrier,” Captain Bonzo recalled with pride.

The first torpedo hit the bow. The crew, who lived in constant fear of an air strike, uncomprehendingly looked up at the sky. “It was a catastrophe; a lot of the guys died there, either burnt or unable to breathe” because of the smoke, said Barros. The blast shook the ship and the lights went out. It was just after 16:00, but was already getting dark.

A second missile hit the stern and the cruiser began to sink.

“When I came out on deck, the life raft I was assigned to had already left. A lot of guys, desperate as they saw that the ship was going under, were diving into the water,” said Barros. In the drills, he had learned that he should go into the water off the port side, but on that side of the ship the deck was already at water level, so he climbed up the starboard side of the boat, where he found himself 15 metres above the waves.

“I jumped in with just the clothes on my back, and swam to a raft,” he said. “The water was freezing, and covered with oil, and when I tried to climb in, I kept slipping, and they had to haul me in.”

He was one of 33 people in a raft built for 20. “We paddled with our hands to get away from the ship, because we were scared of getting sucked under by it. We passed another raft, which had only seven crew members, and some of our guys went onto that raft, so ours wouldn’t sink. We were soaking wet and freezing, and the waves didn’t give us a break.”

Before the cruiser sank, Barros saw a giant wave knock one of the rafts against the bow of the ship. “Some of the guys held onto the ship, others fell into the wateràa bunch of them went down,” he said sadly.

But there was no time to lose – water was pouring into the raft with each wave, and everyone had to bail or it would capsize.

Barros’ raft was rescued 26 hours later by the Argentine navy’s Piedrabuena destroyer. “We were on the ship for three days, searching for other survivors, while we recuperated.”

“I believe I survived because I kept thinking I had to see my parents, and I kept shouting to keep the others on the raft from falling asleep,” he concluded.

For Vidaurre, who didn’t know how to swim, the situation was even more extreme. “I was resting on the orlop (the lowest deck) after standing guard, and I was awakened because my feet were on fire. It was pitch black and everyone was running around, shouting and pushing. Then I saw a glimmer of light; I think it was a miracle of God that showed me where to climb up. I got up, but then I passed out.”

On the sloping deck, everything was chaos and terror. “I heard we had to abandon ship, but I couldn’t stand up because of the pain. So I dragged myself to starboard and managed to tie a rope on, to lower myself, but I was on the highest side of the ship, and was about 20 metres from the water. When I got to the end of the rope, I was still around five metres from the surface, and I was just hanging there.”

“I heard people shouting to me ‘Jump! Let go!’, but the sea was really wild and I saw other guys jumping in and drowning, or getting bashed against the ship by the waves. It was a dilemma. I was thinking ‘I don’t know how to swim; this is it, I’m going to die’. But then someone threw a raft in and I jumped and was lucky to fall on the roof of it,” he recalled.

People in the water immediately started clambering aboard, and everyone paddled with their hands to avoid being sucked under by the sinking ship. “As we were paddling away, we picked up a badly burned guy who was floating in the water. We pulled him onto the raft, but he died after moaning in pain for a few hours, and we had to throw him overboard,” Vidaurre sorrowfully recalled.

“That memory still really gets to me. That, and the memory of a lot of friends from Jujuy who never returned,” he said, visibly moved.

Vidaurre said that since the end of the war, he has had psychological problems. “On those particular dates and others, all these memories come flooding back, and it’s hard to go on.”

A total of 649 Argentines died in the war, including the 323 victims on the Belgrano. But in the years since then, the physical and especially psychological toll has claimed the lives of an estimated 450 veterans, 369 of whom have committed suicide, according to veteran groups.

The latest to take his own life was Belgrano survivor Miguel Boyero, who hung himself on Apr. 11.

The cruiser, which rests on the ocean floor at an estimated depth of 4,500 metres, has never been found.

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