The Desaparecidos of Argentina’s Dirty War

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Different country, same story. A nice building, formerly owned by the military and used to detain, question and torture political dissidents turned into a memorial and a museum. Hundreds of names, pictures, a few letters, a testimony to what really happens under an authoritarian military government..

This is not Pinochet’s Chile this time, but Argentina dealing with the legacy of the Guerra Sucia (Dirty War), the period of state terrorism during which, from 1974 to 1983, military and right-wing death squads hunted down and killed anyone believed to be associated with socialism.

In Chile, the dictatorship had a name: Augusto Pinochet. In Argentina, the junta (military dictatorship) had several leaders, all of them less famous to foreigners but just as terrifying as the Chilean general.

And one of the key features of Operation Condor in Argentina, one of the most chilling as well, was the forced disappearances. The victims of the Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, a lovely euphemism much like “national socialism,” included armed guerrilleros, but also trade unionists, students and left-wing activists, journalists and other intellectuals, and their families. The official number of disappeared abducted, tortured and often killed is reported to be between 13,000 and 30,000.

I’ve always been fascinated by missing people. How, why, where? How can relatives live without knowing? Why do some people disappear from the face of the earth? Where are they?

Of course, in this particular context, “how” and “why” are merely rhetorical questions. “Where” is still a question many Argentinians would like to be answered as many are still looking for their disappeared relatives.

For over thirty years, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo have been campaigning to find out about the fate of their lost relatives. They have been gathering at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires since 1977 and continue to be there every Thursday afternoon. Their symbol is a white scarf (to symbolize the white dove of peace) and they won’t give up. I admire them.

The legacy of the Guerra Sucia feels more taboo in Argentina than Pinochet’s dictatorship legacy in Chile. Argentina still has skeletons in its closet. In Buenos Aires, if you pay attention, you will see memorials embedded in the pavement in various neighbourhoods with the names of the desaparecidos. But I had to wait until Rosario to find a Museo de la Memoria dedicated to the victims of the juntas.

I pushed the door of the museum on a stormy evening, our last day in Rosario.

“Do you know what it is about?” the employee at the entrance asked me.

“Yes.”

“Are you looking for someone?”

“No,” I replied. “I’m a traveller. I just… I just want to understand. It’s part of my responsibility. I’m not just here for fun stuff.”

He nodded. “Take your time and just come over if you have any question.”

I walked around the building. I kept on thinking people were tortured here. How could I forget? Their names were displayed everywhere, long official lists, much like those the Nazi wrote to keep track of everything. Dictatorships maintain good record keeping.

Argentina’s political history is complicated. I’m not judging.

I just want to understand.

A little bit of modern history at the Museo Del Bicentenario in Buenos Aires

A little bit of modern history at the Museo Del Bicentenario in Buenos Aires

White head scarf of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo at the Museo Del Bicentenario in Buenos Aires

Memorial embedded in the pavement to two disappeared in Buenos Aires

Museo de la Memoria in Rosario

Museo de la Memoria in Rosario

Museo de la Memoria in Rosario

Museo de la Memoria in Rosario

Museo de la Memoria in Rosario

A more modern disappearance in Paraná

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

6 Comments

  1. Back in December, while I was in Budapest, I went to a museum called the “Terror Haza” (House of Terror). It was the former headquarters of the AVH, or the Hungarian secret police, during the Communist Period. Now it’s a museum documenting the people who disappeared before and during this period. My visit to this place was definitely not a happy one, but yes, you get to learn a lot.

    Different country, same story, indeed.

      • I have family in Budapest, so I visit the city on a regular basis. Even though I mostly hang out with family when I am there, I do take time to be alone and discover the city little by little, so I get to visit places like these. It’s just that I have seen the “typical” things to see in Budapest by now, and so I go to out of the way places now.

        That said, I also heard plenty of stories about how bad being behind the Iron Curtain was. After all, my spouse immigrated the moment the government allowed its citizens to get passports and travel outside. He has plenty of relatives that were able to get out (around the 1956 Revolution) and settled elsewhere, vowing never to step back into Hungary again. And there are also relatives and family members who didn’t get out and stayed behind. As with most things, I try to learn about these independently, not simply believing the stories I hear (same reason why I decided to go to Israel and Palestine in 2015).

        • (I absolutely love when you call your significant other your “spouse”. Side note but I remember our emails around the moment it became official and I’m still happy for you two!)

          I know very little about what happened behind the Iron Curtain, except for Communist China through my studies and first-person account with Feng’s family. France was overall fairly sympathetic to the East block so I feel we never learned the full story (and I’m speaking as a left-wing person…)

  2. I’ve always been interested in the Desaparecidos, probably because growing up I remember hearing about Pinochet on the news and seeing footage of relatives marching with photos of their loved ones both in Chile and Argentina. It’s a huge part of modern history, but probably still a taboo subject since it only happened a generation ago.

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