Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Travels to Buenos Aires - Definitely not the Paris of South America

Photographs of the disappeared on windows at ex-ESMA Detention Center
It’s difficult to move past abduction, torture, detention and disappearing when thinking about the experience of being in Buenos Aires. It is a lively and buzzing city with friendly people and a vibrant cultural life. It has some interesting museums, diverse neighborhoods, plenty of colonial architecture, an equal measure of which is in disrepair. But I found it impossible to get past the fact that justice has never been served for the crimes committed under the military dictatorship. Everywhere I went in Buenos Aires, I felt the weight of the unresolved past: the crimes of the fascist death squads hang over Buenos like a dark cloud. As I walked around, I kept wondering if this man or that was guilty of crimes against humanity. I saw big burly men in suits sauntering down the street and I immediately thought “ex-military.” The walls of Buenos Aires’ streets are also filled with graffiti that protests the violent rule, and the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo still gather and protest the disappearance of their children, forty years on. Perhaps most frightening of all, the remains of detention and torture centers are barely disguised, right in the middle of the city. For all of the celebration of daily life in Buenos Aires, I was not expecting to be confronted by the darkness that haunts the streets.
Political graffiti on the streets & images of the Disappeared
I asked a local if there was corruption in Argentina as there is in so many other South American countries, and his response, was “well, not of overt kind, but of course, that’s how government runs.” The broken pavements, daily demonstrations, the artificially inflated peso, the curious absence of indigenous or black people in the streets of Buenos Aires, it reveals that something is not right with this city.

"Paris of South America"
I was in Buenos Aires for a conference that took place in the Borges Cultural Centre that shares the building with a plush downtown mall, Galerias Pacifico. The mall is filled with street designer shops, eateries and it’s even a hub for changing money on the black market. Again, just another location bustling with daily life. That was, until I learnt that the military junta had set up torture chambers in the basement. By the time I learned of the building’s history, I was not at all surprised as I had been in Buenos Aires a few days and was feeling the ghosts of the these nine long years (1974-83) wherever I went. I read that the walls in the basement of the Galerias Pacifico building still bear the graffiti of the tortured and disappeared. I didn’t go down to see if these markings had been erased by the 1991 renovations of the building. I didn’t need to see any more traces of violence and death in Buenos Aires: I had seen enough.
Street Graffiti
On the final day of the conference, we visited ex-ESMA, the centre for torture, detention and transition to death for over 5,000 people during the fascist dictatorship. My skin shuddered as I looked at buildings in close proximity, even integration into daily life, from the fascist period. They were, at the time in 1974-83, used by the armed forces, mainly naval, as a training facility. In the basement of the building we visited, detainees identified as resisters to the fascists were herded, hooded, stripped of their identity, then their humanity, before being detained upstairs, tortured some more, and finally, taken on a plane and dropped in the ocean, alive. All these clinical activities took place while the officers in charge lived, worked, and slept on floors one and two of the same building. One wonders what inhumanity it requires to eat and sleep with the business of torture and murder taking place all around. It is clear on visiting the building that the guards and officers saw their prisoners, handcuffed, hooded and shackled as they were led to their pit measuring 70cm wide and 2m long. They must also have heard  the prisoners upstairs as they waited for their call to death.
Walls at ex-Esma

Windows at ex-Esma
The most heinous part of the story was told us by our guide: the officers moved the stairs and the elevator. When the prisoners who became survivors, told of their memory of the spatial organization of the building after the fact, they remembered the stairs and the elevator that took them to and from their living death, from street level to basement, from basement to 3rd floor, and finally to street level to be disposed of in the sea. After they had testified at the ongoing tribunal, court representatives came to verify the layout of the building to prove the innocence and rectitude of the survivors. However, the stairs and the elevator had been removed. Similarly, when bodies started to wash up on the shores of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the perpetrators studied the currents of the sea and made sure to drop the bodies in a place and at a time that would ensure they were not carried by the tide to shore. That they could even imagine doing these clinical actions was a chilling reminder, not one of them has yet been brought to justice. I don’t think I can imagine the torture of having my reality discredited in this way: the denial of removing the spatial co-ordinates to disprove the captives’ memory must have been psychological hell. To date, not one person has been charged with these crimes.

Projection of books on 3rd Floor (prison and torture area) at es-Esma
As we walked through the centre, the guide also reminded us not to touch the walls of the cells and the rooms because the building was still being used as evidence in the trials to prosecute and bring justice to the captors. So effectively, with the history ongoing, I felt as though the murderers were still watching the corridors, and was sickened to think, not only of the torture that took place within these walls, but that the world can sit back and wait for what should be the most urgent of actions.

Former Detention Center under a traffic bridge in San Telmo
Buenos Aires, and all of Argentina, as a place that suffered a violent and bloody dictatorship will take decades and still more decades before it can recover from the torture, abuse and crimes of its government. While it was the rulers of the past that committed these crimes, there was no secret made of the fact that the Argentinian government of the present is taking steps to oust the humanitarian groups who occupy and activate for human rights at ex-ESMA. Their funding is being cut. And so, I came away from Buenos Aires wondering how can this festering wound can ever begin to heal when not only do the people who committed the crimes not admit having done so, but some of those charged with bringing justice are doing their best to deny? 

Many had told me before I went that Buenos Aires is like Europe, it's the Paris of South America. It’s true that France is not the epitome of governmental right doing, but, there’s no doubt that while Buenos Aires might have wealthy bourgeoise neighborhoods with splendid colonial architecture, this city is a long way from being the Paris of South America.

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