Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I went to a concentration camp yesterday

How's that for a fun title, dear Broad Readership? Yes, it's true, today I was able to continue the grand tradition of DF visits to sites of horrors against humanity (cf., e.g., 2010's classic blog entry, "Chillin' in Dachau!!!"). What's more, I was able to do so merely by taking a colectivo down the street to Belgrano, where only a few blocks from the Estadio Monumental and smack in the middle of a bustling city district lies ESMA, la Escuela Superior de Mecanica de la Armada.

La ESMA, of course, was not just a military technical training camp, but in fact one of the main sites where the Argentine military dictatorship of 1977-83 (I think it was 77-83, and I should say now that I'm far, far from an expert on this, and may have some of the facts not-quite-right, and my non-expert status is kind of the point, or one of the points, of this-here post) effected its policy of "disappearing" members of the political opposition.

I have to admit that upon arrival in Argentina, I recognized the term "desaparecidos" and understood that it connected to some atrocity that had happened here some years ago, but couldn't have explained much more than that. Somewhat embarrassingly, I think I knew this only because it was mentioned in connection with a documentary I saw about the '78 World Cup (which happened in Argentina, and was bound up with the then-new military dictatorship's efforts to both create an image of a united Argentina and to distract people from the brutality of their policies).

Since being here, I've become increasingly, and darkly, fascinated with the state terrorism of the military dictatorship (often called "la Guerra Sucia," or "the dirty war," but which term I learned today is, for plausible reasons, generally disfavored).

The basic facts appear to be that during the seven or so years during which the dictatorship was in power, they "disappeared" (i.e., illegally detained and, in most cases, executed) about 30,000 people perceived to be opposed to the military regime. The term "systematically" is often paired with these kinds of mass exterminations, but in this case I think it's inapt because the disappearings were done with a lot of arbitrariness, although there was government oversight and surveillance and whatnot.

Anyway, the point is not to give a history lesson since I don't know this history well at all, but merely to frame the basic background facts for the BR so the following will make some sense.

So, ESMA has been converted into a site of remembrance, so to speak, not so much a museum in the sense of many of the holocaust museums I've seen around the world, but more like a living memorial and working history center. I was there with a tour group from my school as well as some students from the University of South Florida.

The tour was led by a pair of very sincere and serious volunteers who kept apologizing for their English, which was ridiculous since their English was perfectly fine. The tour led us through several of the main buildings of ESMA where prisoners were detained (apparently, in tiny coffin-like boxes for days on end) and later tortured and, usually, killed (some 90% of those illegally detained were executed). The methods of execution grabbed me as particularly chilling: The victims were injected with sedatives, and then either shot and buried in various mass graves around the city, or taken in planes and dropped out into the broad Rio de la Plata. These were called, aptly enough, vuelos de muerte ("death flights").

The tour guides were, as I've mentioned, serious and sincere in the way you'd imagine volunteer guides at a concentration camp would be, and kept the discussion pretty conceptual. E.g., they explained at some length that the term "Guerra Sucia" is disfavored because a war presupposes two equal state-like parties, while in this case there were not two equal state-like parties at all, but merely the military government and the population of Argentina. Apparently the preferred term is "State Terrorism," all of which basically seems to me to make sense.

The site itself is interesting because it is very much unlike the kinds of genocide museums I've experienced (which are, somewhat strange to say, numerous), in that there was relatively less in the way of graphic exhibits and more in the way of authentic, recent-seeming actual source material. This is to say that the buildings we visited weren't full of interactive videos showing films and whatnot, but were the actual buildings where the detention and pre-executions took place, more or less unadorned save for a few maps and some quotes from victims.

This austerity lent the experience authenticity, both because I often find interactive exhibits and whatnot kind of infantilizing and even undignified (esp given the subject matter), but also because the reason for the austerity was at least in part because la ESMA is still being used as evidence in ongoing trials for some of the perpetrators of the disappearances.

This latter fact, I must admit, rocked my world. That this whole episode remains a living part of the Argentine present rather than just an ugly relic of its past lends the whole scary affair a distinctive degree of immediacy. After all, this was happening in my lifetime, and in the lifetime of pretty much anyone who's in their thirties or older. When I was a tiny kid listening to Evita incessantly on the cassette player in my parents' Oldsmobile (yes, that actually happened and I remember it, and embarrassingly also remember LOVING that soundtrack), down in Argentina folks were getting whisked off the street and into detention/extermination centers including but not limited to ESMA.

It's hard to overstate the immediacy of all this in contemporary Argentine culture/politics. The sites where this happened, ESMA included, weren't sequestered off in the middle of nowhere, but were (and are) right smack in the middle of the city, so that people were living and working and walking past places where their fellow citizens were being detained, tortured, and killed. When we were going on the introductory bus tour of the city with the program, the tour guide mentioned as we went beneath an underpass that in constructing the highway, they'd uncovered a mass grave with hundreds of bodies of the disappeared (which site was still visible as a mass grave, albeit obviously having been cleared out). Then she mentioned a very picturesque park off to the right and the tour rolled on.

My mind was also blown when the tour guides mentioned at the end of the visit that the groups devoted to preserving the memory of the disappearances had adopted the phrase "Nunca mas" ("Never again") as their official motto. The obvious irony is that when the disappearances were happening, "Never again" was already in full swing as a motto associated with the Holocaust. And despite all the never-again-ing, clearly this kind of mass killing did happen again, in Argentina, and then in Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, and likely in other instances I'm not remembering offhand. My point being that it seems like a singularly impotent and demonstrably failed slogan, however unassailably admirable the sentiment may be.

So the effect this all had on me I suppose derives from the element of surprise. I've been to many other genocide-oriented museums, and am no stranger to the literature on the Holocaust, Rwanda, and Yugoslavia, and I'm pretty well aware of the forces that led to, e.g., mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during WWI, oppositionists under Mao, etc. And while in terms of numbers, the quantity of life lost in Argentina during the dictatorship is not on the same scale (though it's not terribly far off, and in any event, I don't think these kinds of numerical comparisons are that useful anyway in measuring the horror of mass killings, perhaps in the sense that multiplying any number by infinity is still infinity), it's still concerning that the whole problem of the desaparecidos was so off my Americano radar screen in terms of institutional and self-education about these kinds of events.

Why? Hard to say. I ran across references to most of the above atrocities in the course of various academic studies, so part of it may be that Argentinian politics doesn't register on Western/US curricula as much as the aforementioned. This isn't really about North/South though because aforementioned courses did address Asian and African genocides, so that hardly solves the problem. It might be that the Arg disappearances were political, and people may be more concerned about and/or freaked out by ethnically inspired genocide a la holocaust, Armos, Rwanda, Yugoslavia. But then again you've got a pretty decent consciousness of the events in China under Mao and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, so that doesn't really work as well either.

So I don't have an explanation for why this event is so far out of the American political consciousness (and I could be wrong about this, and it could just be that I'm embarrassingly and distinctively uninformed, which possibility I seriously am not ruling out). But at the very least my consciousness about this whole passel of awfulness was raised by visiting la ESMA today, and I'm pretty glad about that (and here I mean "glad" as in "pleased about the outcome" not "full of joy", obv.).

And then the tour was over, and what do you do after coming face to face with the specter of man's limitless capacity for inhumanity to his fellow man? Well, if you're DF, you're hungry as hell, so you head down the street to Carlitos with some folks from the Sw program and a few UBA law students and have panqueques (viz., crepes, pictured below).

Is this an unduly flip way to end an uncharacteristically so(m)ber DF blogpost? Jesus, I have no idea. Tactfulness is clearly not my bailiwick. But what else is one supposed to do? You get hungry, you gotta eat. Awful stuff happens, great stuff happens, and you go on living through it all (if in fact you do live), til one day you're no longer alive. As the lady says, "Everyone must breathe until their dying breath." Can't argue with that, o mine homies, now can ye?