When we travel, we seek vibrant new experiences that enrich our understanding of the world and of ourselves. However, I think it’s fair to say that most travellers are seeking out tourist sites of a positive nature. Waterfalls, iconic architecture, natural beauty, and street art are highlights of many locations around the world. However, to visit only positive tourist sites does a disservice to a country by not acknowledging history that has shaped it.
I knew little to nothing of the history of Argentina before studying there on my political science study tour with AIM Overseas. Learning about the period of state terrorism that formed the dark history of Argentina from 1974 to 1983 was one of the most important experiences that I had. It helped me to understand the nature of the current political climate in Argentina and how it has been impacted on by past horrors.
An essential part of this was visiting the former clandestine torture centre of ex-ESMA in Buenos Aires, which was a harrowing but incredibly powerful experience.
The history of state terrorism in Argentina
Approximately 30,000 Argentinian citizens were killed under direct orders from their own government during the 70’s and 80’s. They were murdered for being left-wing activists, trade unionists, students, journalists, Marxists, Peronists, or alleged sympathisers to alternative regimes.
During this period, the government maintained totalitarian control by forbidding discussion of Peron or his populist policies, reacting with violence to political protests, and signing off on direct orders for far right death squads to abduct and murder people who did not comply with them.
These numbers are approximate because people were ‘disappeared’ by the government and taken to clandestine centres for torture and forced labour. These victims are known as los desaparecidos in Spanish. The clandestine centres were located within military bases, and so were not fully out of the public eye. Prisoners were kept in extremely cramped conditions and in intense heat.
The torture that these prisoners were subjected to includes electrocution, partial drowning, and emotional humiliation. In this news article, one prisoner recounted how female prisoners were forced to go out to social events with male guards, particularly guards who had personally killed their husbands or boyfriends.
When a prisoner had been suitably interrogated, they were often subjected to ‘death flights’, where they were drugged and dropped into a river from a height and drowned. The bodies washed up not very far from the city, and so in this way, people were kept in a constant state of fear of the ramifications of not obeying their government.
Babies were also stolen from the ‘disappeared’ pregnant women and re-homed into military families to be raised as their own. Many of these grown up children were unaware of their original families for many years after the fact. Investigations are still underway today to uncover the original families of some people, and trials are still being held against military instigators of this state terrorism.
For a more comprehensive history of this time, I recommend this site.
Visiting ex-ESMA in Buenos Aires
ESMA (Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada) was a naval training base that was converted into a clandestine centre during the period of state terrorism. Located just off a major street in Buenos Aires, it now forms part of a larger complex that honours the dark history of Argentina and campaigns for human rights.
The centre of ex-ESMA has guided tours that show you the conditions that prisoners were subjected to while being held in the clandestine centre. Inside the roof is where most prisoners were kept, in tiny rooms with low hanging ceilings. The heat is pervasive and stifling. I felt physically ill standing in there and feeling the ghosts of the prisoners who had been tortured and detained before their death.
You can also see the tiny rooms where pregnant prisoners gave birth, before their babies were stolen from them and re-homed with military officials. The stark white walls enclose tiny, cramped places, and you can only imagine how traumatising the experience must have been.
There is also a giant wall that shows all the faces of the prisoners who were detained in ex-ESMA. One of the prisoners, Victor Basterra, was responsible for taking photographs for prison records. He also secretly made copies of these photographs, so that once the clandestine centre was dismantled and records destroyed, the dead could still be identified.
I think it can be easy to distance yourself from a horrific history when you are given such high body counts, but the wall of faces throws the humanity of the prisoners in your face. It forces you to acknowledge that these were real people, and that their suffering happened within those very walls.
I felt so desperately uncomfortable the entire time I was inside the complex, but it was the defining experience of my travels in Argentina, and particularly in Buenos Aires.
The relevance of this history in Argentina today
The period of state terrorism and the horror of the clandestine centres is integral for understanding many parts of Argentina’s politics. It is also important for making sense of some of the phenomena that can be seen in down-town Buenos Aires.
As I outlined before, many children were stolen and re-homed with military families. Some of these now adults are still unaware of their living relatives. La Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo (The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) have marched in the Plaza every Thursday since 1977. They march with pictures of their children who were disappeared during the government regime, call for justice for the victims, and work to uncover the real identity of babies who were stolen.
The march of the Madres is one of the most touching experiences that I had in Buenos Aires. They are all very old now, and brought to the square in a minibus. They are met every week by a crowd of cheering supporters who join them in their march around the square. The message is one of never forgetting history. It is important to them to acknowledge the victims and the atrocity of the war, so that it will never be repeated
Trials are also still being held against key military officials who were part of the clandestine operations. Previous governments have emphasised that it is important to seek justice for the victims, even though it has been many years.
However, the current President, Mauricio Macri, has halted trials and publicly stated that it’s time for Argentina to move on from its dark history. This is a highly contentious political issue that has divided public opinion.
Why is it so important as a traveller to acknowledge this history of Argentina?
Visiting ex-ESMA is a sobering experience, and one which will make you re-evaluate what you know about Argentina and its history. Its not a pleasant experience, and it will probably put you in an uncomfortable or sad mood. But it is so incredibly important to acknowledge past atrocities so that history will never be repeated.
In the same way that visiting Auschwitz is important for understanding the Holocaust and its impacts on history, visiting ex-ESMA will open your eyes and give you a more human perspective on the period of state terrorism.
As a traveller, it is important to immerse yourself in the culture and history of a country if you truly want to understand it beyond a superficial level. It also gives you an opportunity to pay respects to victims of horrific events, and further your understanding of the nature of humankind. To be a responsible traveller is to open your mind to other experiences and perspectives, and connect with a common humanity that can be found the world over.
Have you ever visited a memorial site that enriched your understanding of the country you were visiting? Do you find it important to learn the history of a country when you travel there?