BUENOS AIRES — In 1976, a dictatorship usurped the democracy of Argentina to establish a program of torture and murder intent on flushing out “subversives.” Before the terror ended in 1983, some 30,000 Argentines vanished — “the disappeared” — many of them thrown alive from military aircraft to wash ashore mutilated, naked, and unrecognizable.
What followed was basically silence. Many citizens simply preferred to put the ugliness behind them. And besides, except for the cries for justice by an aging coterie of mothers of the disappeared, there was no place, no arena for discourse with which to connect with the history.
This all changed three years ago with the dedication here in Buenos Aires of the Museum Site of Memory ESMA, a former military detention center and the most notorious of a half-dozen such centers that took so many lives.
“This memorial comes at an especially important time in a world plagued ever more by selfish nationalism, racism, and xenophobia,” said Marcia Perez, a bilingual tour leader at ESMA (the Spanish acronym for a military training facility that became the torture center). Argentina has turned the empty shell of a building into a state-funded acknowledgement that government can go very, very wrong.
“Why dredge up bad memories?” an acquaintance had asked when I arrived in Buenos Aires in April. “And why, of all things, a travel story?” Her question gave me pause. This is travel that makes me a better parent, a more discerning voter.
“Why tour Auschwitz?’’ I responded, and let it go at that.
Augusto Videla staged his coup to address economic disparity, deficit spending, rampant inflation, and a media reporting on government campaigns to foment the anti-Communist paranoia of the era — to distill some world history down to a sentence. With American support, Videla promised a quick, harsh crackdown on long-haired subversives. US puppets across the hemisphere were promising the same.
In Buenos Aires, ground zero for flushing out opponents was 8151 Avenue del Libertador, a stucco three-story building that resembles an elegant townhouse. But the ghosts within the empty rooms whisper and scream of clever deceptions and brutal techniques to rout out perceived enemies of the state.
Today almost 50,000 visitors tour the facility annually. On the afternoon of my visit there were but two Americans: Chris Schoop, 55, a tennis instructor from Los Angeles and his son Parker, a senior at Loyola High School. They said they had stumbled upon the memorial that had moved them to the point of reverent shock.
“I had no idea this had happened,” the father whispered. “Never could this happen in the states. People would not allow it.”
The son was less certain. “We’re studying the Holocaust in school,” Parker said. “This place makes me wonder if any government anywhere could do the same.”
Prisoners arrived at night. They got one telephone call to tell their families they had suddenly decided to take a trip and no one should try to find them. Then the prisoners were stripped naked, hooded, and taken one at a time to torture rooms in the basement. The most common ways to inflict pain were waterboarding and electrocution with cattle prods inserted into body orifices.
To muffle screams, walls were covered with sound-absorbing egg cartons while rock music blared throughout the building. Then the prisoners were murdered. The death flights took off every Wednesday, always in aircraft with cargo doors so the 20 or 30 prisoners could be easily dropped into the Atlantic Ocean.
Pregnant women got a reprieve. They lived long enough to give birth. Then the new mothers were dispatched to death flights and their infants given away to infertile military couples or their friends. Sebastian Patricia Marcuzzo was one such child.
“Dear Mum,” Sebastian’s mother, Elizabeth, wrote home in April 1977 shortly after the birth, “I’m so sorry for not having written before but I wasn’t able to do this as I was abroad working.” Of the 36 children born at ESMA (127 children in centers nationwide), Sebastian is one of the very few children whose identity could be traced to his murdered parents. Another was Macarena Gelman, now a member of Congress in Uruguay.
Stories such as this, told in a photocopy of the original letter, appear throughout the building as hushed spectators serve witness. Here is where the stairwell, its footfalls seared into the memories of so many hooded prisoners, was relocated during a massive remodeling project designed to mislead human rights investigators. Here is where the torturers relocated the telephone to discredit prisoner claims.
The memorial tour culminates in an auditorium where a slide show projects the names and faces of some of the 2,985 officials eventually arrested for human rights violations. To date, 867 of them have gone to prison. The remainder are dead or still awaiting trial.
At the end of my visit I sat with my guide in a courtyard where military trucks once loaded prisoners for the death flights. Today the yard is grassy green, bucolic. Marcia Perez talked about ESMA and the national guilt it has surfaced.
“Ultimately we have to blame ourselves,” she said. “We let it happen. We chose not to look.”David Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.