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ARGENTINA
So as not to forget
Andrés Gaudin
4/22/2004
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Extermination camp is converted into space for reflection and remembrance of crimes of state terrorism.

The government of President Néstor Kirchner, in one of a series of actions with strong emotional content taken in defense of human rights and condemnation of state terrorism, has converted a former torture camp into a museum of remembrance.

The Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), the largest of 340 extermination camps of the last military dictatorship (1976-83), became the Museum of Remembrance on March 24. It is estimated that during the bloody years of state terrorism more than 5,000 of the 30,000 disappeared in the military dictatorship passed through the ESMA.

"We are seeking to preserve the historic truth, this will be a space for remembrance and teaching where society will record in its memory the crimes of state terrorism, so that something like this will never happen again," Kirchner told an emotional crowd that included former prisoners and family members of the disappeared.

The same day — the 28th anniversary of the military coup — Kirchner had presided over another deeply symbolic ceremony. In the gallery where homage is paid to the heads of the Advanced War School, he ordered that the paintings of two of its former directors — former dictators Jorge Rafael Videla (1976-81) and Reynaldo Bignone (1982-83) — be removed.

"The valiant attitude of Kirchner contrasts with that of the last two presidents — Carlos Menem (1989-99) and Fernando de la Rúa (1999-2001) — who tried to erase ESMA from Argentina’s history," said Rosa Roisimblit, mother of two of the disappeared and grandmother of a boy seized by the military and whom she recently recovered.

Menem had decided to demolish the ESMA building and build in its place a "Monument to National Unity," using the rest of the 17 hectares (42 acres) — located in one of the most expensive sections of Buenos Aires — for a private real estate business. De la Rúa, meanwhile, proposed creating "a center of academic excellence."

On March 3, three weeks before the creation of the museum in the emblematic Navy building, the Navy chief, Adm. Jorge Godoy, had apologized before the entire officer core, a gesture all his predecessors since the end of the dictatorship, with the consent of the presidents in office at the time, had avoided.

"We know now that the ESMA, which should have been dedicated exclusively to the professional development of our non-commissioned officers, was used to carry out perverse acts that violated human dignity, ethics and the law, converting itself finally into a symbol of barbarity and irrationality," Godoy said.

According to the testimony of the few prisoners who managed to leave the ESMA alive, the 25 buildings existing on the property were part of a complex entirely at the service of repression. The Officers’ Casino was the point of entry, where the prisoners remained for the first few days. The main torture chamber functioned there.

Another building housed a printing press where prisoners were forced to print false documentation: commercial receipts which justified non-existent expenses, journalists’ credentials and stationery of shell companies to which goods — automobiles, houses, companies — stolen from the detained were transferred.

In another of the buildings, medical and dental offices used for torture were set up. Later a delivery room, where women prisoners were brought to assist their colleagues during childbirth, was added. The largest center of illegal adoption of infants born in captivity operated there.

The detained were also forced to work in an automobile repair workshop. Adjoining this was based the Special Navy Operations Group (GOEA), commandos charged with putting prisoners to sleep in order to take them on "death flights" in which hundreds of disappeared were dumped into the sea.

Although 71 percent of the population supports the government’s decision to create the Museum of Remembrance, the debate now focuses on what the museum should be like. Everyone agrees, however, it should be used as a space for reflection.

For the independent human rights organization Open Memory, which has been working on the idea for several years, modern museology appeals to the emotions as an educational resource. The recreation of the historic space is achieved with objects, dramatization and music. At other times it is the absence, the empty space that counts — personal objects in stark contrast with official documents, statistics, the cold numbers.

In a joint effort, human rights organizations have affirmed that ESMA and all of the torture camps should be preserved without modifications to conserve the evidence of what occurred there, constituting a permanent testimony for future generations and protection of the proof for trials in progress.

For Tomorrow(*)

Tomorrow

when we are not here

when everything has turned dark

when no time remains to waste

nor sleep broken off by kisses

when my hands

are separated from yours

and we have to hold up our fists in resignation

when the mouth has no more words

and the words disappear

in a dazed whirlwind

when the body

stops feeling

the permanent company

of fear

when the ears

are accustomed forever to silence

when we are not here

we will return.

*Fragment of a poem by Ana María Ponce, disappeared in 1978, brought out by one of the few prisoners who got out alive from the ESMA extermination camp.


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