Thu | Jun 24, 2021

30 years after Argentine invasion, visible scars remain

Published:Monday | April 2, 2012 | 12:00 AM

STANLEY, Falkland Islands (AP):

Thirty years after Argentina and Britain spilled blood over these remote islands in the south Atlantic, the scars of war are still being scratched raw.

Argentina's occupation of the islands it claims as 'Las Malvinas' lasted just 74 days, but the trauma extends well beyond the families of the 907 people killed.

Islanders still live among landmines the Argentines planted; only light-footed penguins can step onto the beautiful white-sand beach just outside town where troops came ashore on April 2, 1982. Islanders still feel they need an extensive military garrison, with warships and a nuclear submarine circling somewhere in the deep, to protect them from their Latin American neighbour.

Arriving planes and cruise ships make some islanders worry whether Argentines on board will make trouble. Each day they steel themselves for news of another attempt to isolate them economically and diplomatically, part of the Argentine government's intensifying campaign to pressure Britain to concede sovereignty.

Marches and rallies

Islanders turned out for a march by the Falkland Islands Defence Force yesterday, remembering the day their local militia mobilised just ahead of the invasion, while Argentines hold vigil at their Monument to the Fallen, in Ushuaia, capital of the country's southernmost province. On Monday, President Cristina Fernandez will be in Ushuaia as well, leading rallies nationwide that honour the veterans as heroes and press her country's claim.

"Although 30 years is quite a while, on the other hand it's yesterday. As soon as you start making threats all that comes back again. It makes people nervous, it puts people on edge. We don't believe they'll use military force, but the other things they are doing aren't helpful," said Tony Smith, an islander who gives tours and laments the hardening positions on both sides. "Nearly every Argentine I've met has been perfectly all right," he says.

Argentines also see themselves as victims. Many focus their anger on Britain's historical role as the world's leading colonial power, even though the islands are no longer a colony, and blame the 1982 war on the military junta that led Argentina at the time, even though taking the islands by force had considerable popular support.

Polls show most remain convinced that Las Malvinas have always been Argentine, and are cheered by President Cristina Fernandez's current campaign. But looking deeper can be painful because her nationalist speeches only seem to push the islands farther from reach.

"It's a very emotional subject for us. We still teach our children that the Malvinas are Argentine. I still hope they will be," said Marcelo Pozzo, 49, who was a 19-year-old conscript sailor when he survived the sinking of the Argentine Navy's light cruiser General Belgrano by British torpedoes.

"We don't know what the presidency is trying to accomplish," said Pozzo. "It should be trying to build ties, but the islanders don't want to be close to Argentina. They want to live in peace."

For Pozzo and other Argentine war veterans, emotions are even more complicated because they were drafted by a military focused on eliminating leftist "subversives" at home, then sent into a war they were unprepared for. Soldiers were abused by their own officers during the occupation, sometimes left nearly starving as supplies rotted on the docks, or freezing in foxholes in clothes meant for northern Argentina's subtropics.

Gustavo Pirich remembers the blows he received from a superior officer for stealing food from a warehouse in desperation. Officers ate the meat and potatoes, leaving the troops with nothing but watery gruel, said Pirich, who testified that such abuses are still-prosecutable war crimes - a question now before Argentina's Supreme Court.

Still suffering

Pirich still suffers from trench foot, caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, cold and unsanitary conditions, as well as the panic attacks and irritability that come with post-traumatic stress syndrome. He acknowledges that "one day I looked with great love at an open window," but says he overcame suicidal thoughts through years of therapy and medication.

"We were very young, completely innocent. Nobody thought we were going to war. We didn't know what war was," said Pozzo, now a systems engineer, describing the harrowing experience of surviving the sinking that killed 323 fellow sailors.

After their surrender that June 14, a day islanders now celebrate as Liberation Day, the Argentines returned to a country ashamed, and many had experiences familiar to US Vietnam War veterans. There were no ticker-tape parades; nobody wanted to remember the humiliation.

"In the early years there was neglect, a lack of attention. To see a war veteran was to see living proof of a mistake," said Dario Volonte, another Belgrano sinking survivor and now a renowned operatic tenor who credits Eastern religion for helping him avoid suicide.

It took more than 10 years before the veterans were granted monthly war pensions. The first mental-health clinic focused on their care opened just last month, too late for the 439 veterans, by the president's count, who committed suicide after the war. The only government mental health survey of veterans, in 1995, found that more than 80 per cent still suffered from anxiety and irritability, and 58 percent said they were frequently depressed.

"As with other facts of national history, the episode of the Malvinas war remains one of those hazy things that nobody wants to examine too closely," said psychologist Maria Cristina Solano, who ran the survey. "But there still remain survivors, and traces of things that keep it from being forgotten."