Sunday, 24 July 2011

Tales from Argentina – The River as Witness (Part 3 of 3)

The Río de la Plata (The River Plate)
– a brief story of a neglected river

IV -  Death by The State

In the seventeen years from 1966 to 1983 Argentina had seventeen presidents, of which three were properly elected civilians, two inherited the job or were acting as caretakers (also civilians) and the remaining twelve, representing 70+% of the total over that period, were members of the armed forces.

Between 1976 and 1983 the country was run by a military dictatorship which called itself the National Reorganisation Process (“El Proceso”) during which there was a permanent state of siege and no political parties were allowed.  Political repression led to the execution without trial of sections of the population judged to be subversive or terrorist, euphemistically described as “disappeared persons”.  Official figures for these “disappeared” people at that time stand at 18,000, but human rights sources put that figure unofficially at nearer to 30,000.

This was terrorism by the state.  A high proportion of the victims were young people who were student activists, as well as many who were suspected of being politically active but who actually had no involvement.  They were rounded up or kidnapped, tortured, raped, forced into exile, made to disappear or assassinated.  Some gave birth while under detention and their children were subsequently given to childless army couples who did not ask questions.  They had no defence, no trial, and there was no one to listen to them.

Except that is for their mothers and grandmothers, who appealed to the authorities to be told where their children and grandchildren were, or to demand restitution of the bodies for decent burial.  What started out as an indignant appeal became a world famous cause, as they took to wearing white scarves with victims' names embroidered upon them and gathered in the park opposite government house  (the Plaza de Mayo) in peaceful protest every Thursday afternoon for many years.  They became known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo) and are now known formally as human rights activists.  They have identified 256 children who would have been born in captivity and passed to military families after their mothers were assassinated, and they have been successful in finding the whereabouts of a lucky few, who as adults have returned to their families.

There were 610 clandestine detention centres around the country, the best known being ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or the Naval School of Mechanics), where over 5,000 prisoners were “processed” and 90% of the executed during “El Proceso”.

It was from this location that many hundreds of prisoners made their final journey on the so-called Flights of Death.  This came to light when bodies started being washed up along the coast of both Argentina and Uruguay, revealing at post mortem that the victims had died of a blow consistent with hitting a concrete surface at great speed.  Many years later in 1995, a navy captain heavily involved in these crimes made a statement  before a judge, confessing his part in the Flights of Death. 

Groups of detainees, 15 to 20 at a time, would be told that they were being transferred to a better and freer detention centre, and once in the air would have to submit to a so-called vaccination, which was in fact the barbiturate anaesthetic Pentothal.  When semi-conscious their clothes were removed (the reasons for this are not clear) and they were flung out of the plane into the River Plate.

Corruption, a failing economy, growing public awareness of the harsh repressive measures taken by the regime and the military defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas by Britain in 1982 eroded its public image.  The last de facto army president was forced by the lack of support within the army itself and the steadily growing pressure of public opinion, to call for elections.  In December 1983 democracy was formally restored, the presidency being taken up by a civilian Raúl Alfonsín.

The 1976-1983 period was known as the Dirty War, and was investigated from 1984 onwards by the National Commission for the Disappeared, whose report was entitled “Never Again”.  The members of the governing army juntas were put on trial and sentenced in 1985, and in the decades since other people responsible have also been brought to book.  The most recent is one of the Flights of Death navy pilots who was found living in the Netherlands.  He gave himself away because he had been talking to colleagues about his former life, and his views – shockingly – had not changed.

This is a life-sized monument to the people
who died in this way, located 30 metres from shore
 on a floating platform.


The River Relents

I remember Ricky when we were at school – different building for the boys, but the same school – his dark, curly hair and strong features, and the way he broke into a dazzling smile when something pleased him.  Always the good guy, the one you could go to for a laugh or advice.

In 1968 the boys’ and girls’ schools staged a joint show  - Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Fair Lady, and he played Alfred P Doolittle, Eliza's father.  I was Mrs Pearce, Professor Higgins’ housekeeper (with most of the original part cut out, so I didn’t get any standing ovations).

Ricky in the middle (singing 'Wiv a lttle bit o' luck')

At curtain call

Colonel Pickering on the left, Eliza in the middle
and yours truly on the right (as housekeeper Mrs Pearce),
in no danger of acting myself off the stage
Then our school days came to an end and we each went our separate ways, and that was that.  Until a few years ago when I learned with horror of what had happened to him in 1995.

In early June of that year he was the only survivor of 7 people on board a Cessna belonging to a small provincial airline, of which he was the General Manager at the time.  It lost its right propeller 1,700 metres from the coast after leaving Aeroparque, the city airport, and crashed into the River Plate.

Ricky remembers the plane taking off, and the bang a couple of minutes later which left him in shock.  Then the water pouring into the cabin.  He thinks he was saved by the fact that his seatbelt was on very tight and that the pilot had told him how to get out. 

Having managed to get the cabin door open, thanks to his size he was able to force his way through the pressure of water trying to get in.

“Once in the river I realised properly what had happened, and I was filled with despair”  he says.  His first reaction was to search for the others but it was late autumn and night time and raining, and he couldn’t see.  He recognised that hypothermia would soon set in. 

The smart leather boots he was wearing weighed him down and for the next forty minutes he struggled to get them off, painfully aware that the process was draining his energy.   “I was swallowing water and I kept sinking.  I even thought of giving up.”

And then he remembered a brief conversation he had had with his daughter that morning  and her words “I’m frightened that one day something will happen to you and you won’t come back”, and this gave him strength.  The boots came off eventually.  He saw lights twinkling ahead of him and he swam towards them, but after what seemed a very long time it dawned on him with increasing hopelessness that he was no closer to them. 

Perhaps it was adrenalin, perhaps it was thoughts of his family, but he suddenly felt his brain start to work.  He realised that it was possible that he had been fighting the current and that the shortest distance between two points could well not be the most direct.  He decided to swim aimlessly, and let the current push him where it may.

His luck turned at last.  The sea was very choppy and must have carried him at some speed across the water, because some hours later he staggered ashore at Punta Carrasco, Uruguay, where the current had driven him.  His body temperature was 26°C.

Ricky had reached the very brink of death and he realised for the first time what it really meant to fight for one’s own existence.  He feels it brought out the best in him.  “I no longer say I can’t.  It was a new birth for me.”

Those who did not survive were found with arms extended towards the other emergency door, which inexplicably was locked from the outside.  The pilot’s widow is still trying to clear his name through the courts.


Final Thoughts

My memories of the River Plate were always of a rather threatening presence on our doorstep, a smelly, dirty, brown stretch of water which had to be crossed to get anywhere, or to turn our backs on because she was way too unhealthy to swim in and her delta too full of mosquitoes.  I knew nothing of her history, thought little about it as I got older, and realise only now as I learn about this part of my mother country, that my real problem with the Río de la Plata is embarrassingly childish and simple – I never forgave her for not being blue. 

I crossed the estuary by ferry to Uruguay in 1961 as a child of eight at exactly the same time of year as the tragic accident of the Ciudad de Asunción in 1963, only two years earlier, and my excitement at being on a boat for the first time was quite dashed when I looked over the rail and saw really brown water all around me.  Nobody said anything about silt and its benefits.  Brown meant dirty, and that was that.  I turned my face away forever. 

She will never be beautiful, but I long for the day when there are enough funds and the will to clean up the Riachuelo which feeds into it and give the sealife a better chance.  The run down area in one section has been transformed in the last twenty years, and Puerto Madero is now a very attractive complex with wonderful restaurants and pretty areas to sit on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.  I hope her rehabilitation will continue.

She has witnessed terrible scenes of conflict and suffering, but life and commerce continue despite it all.  Cargo ships laden with goods come and go, oil tankers and dredgers lumber slowly along her channels and people still pack the ferries. 

And generations of children succeed each other, still disappointed and slightly ashamed that she isn’t blue and sparkling.


In “Clifton Town”, an opera about Bristol’s riots in 1831 written by John Humphreys, there is a sweet song about the river Avon which crosses Bristol and continues its journey through the Gorge and out into the Severn Estuary.  I was struck by the relevance of some of its verses on the role of the river in the countryside versus its role as it flows through the city.  As I read it there were to me strong echoes of the river of this story, whose main tributary, the Paraná, has a peaceful and pretty beginning in the north of the country. 

In this final section of the poem the river Avon could easily be the River Plate as it flows into the estuary.  A Peeler – as the policemen were called in those days – is singing to a young local girl, whom he sees as the embodiment of the innocent river upstream, and who has now come to the city to be soiled and corrupted -

…O child of Nature, like the River Avon,
A gentle gem that in the summer shone;
A city’s heart of stone’s no loving haven!
She’ll be grieving on leaving and ready to be gone.
Through the Gorge she’ll sadly flee,
Down to the sea,
With the stains of a city’s dirt,
Painfully creeping
And hurt by the same inhumanity and shame
That has tarnished the lovely name of Avon!

And for all the songs she sings,
Tales that she brings,
Of the meadow and wooded hill
Green in the memory still,
Just the same inhumanity and shame
Ever tarnished the lovely name of Avon!

Thank you to John Humphreys
for permission to quote part of his song.
References are at the end.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non- digital photo archive


References - in addition to Wikipedia
General: (for list of submerged wrecks in the River Plate)
The British Invasions:

The air accident when Ricky swam to Uruguay:



Joyful said...

The sad stories continue. Wow! So much to take in. I am familiar with the grandmothers and the disappeared. It is a shocking and terrifying part of your country's history. Each of us has some shocking tale in our country's history but hopefully as time goes on and men and women have to pay for their crimes and atrocities, it will be a thing of the past. That is the hope of some of us anyway.

I wouldn't be too hard on yourself about why you turned your back on the river. I too though am an adult expect a river to be blue, or greenish and if it isn't pretty well it just doesn't warrant my attention. Perhaps it is a human need to have our natural surroundings be beautiful. At least for some of us. If there is development now on the riverfront, I am sure that in time, there will be efforts to rejuvenate the waters.

Lynette Killam said...

As a new mother myself, I was horried to read stories of 'the disappeared', though I much admired the women who put themselves out there.None of it made any more sense to me than the bloody Troubles in Northeren Ireland did...I don't think I will ever understand such things!

I much enjoyed your river history, especially the story about your schoolfriend's amazing what we can pull out of ourselves when our lives - and our children's lives - depend on it.

I look forward to visiting again...:)

Lynette Killam said...

I realize I'd forgotten to mention how much I enjoyed your photos on each post! I haven't scanned too many of my earlier photography is definitely my favourite innovation of all time...LOL.

Lonicera said...

Joyful - I know, I've wondered if it's not a great idea to keep telling sad stories. Trouble is I haven't yet found any happy ones which are also good stories... I've got 3 few cheerful ones coming up (already written), just to lull you into a false sense of security (!!), then (sorry) wham, I'll be telling either about a horrible murder in the 1850s, or about a wonderful and brave woman who tried and both failed and succeeded to escape prostitution in the early 20th century.

I have no happy Kigen-type stories to tell, but should I ever find any, you may be sure I will!

Lonicera said...

(Sorry, delete 'few' in the previous comment)

Lonicera said...

Lynette - I do agree with what you say. I worked for 20 years for a Northern Irish company, and visited Banbridge and Belfast several times, and was glad to see the changes over the years. The murals scared me particularly, both sides...

How nice that you too enjoy photography. I got keen on it as a hobby some 15 years ago, and this blog is enabling me at last to share some of them. Like you, I haven't look back since digital photography made its appearance, being so easy to see your results straight away and go back and have another go if necessary. I am at present scanning all my slides (thousands)so I've got enough for my "Photo Finish" section for a while, particularly as I learn more about Photoshop.

I'm trying to get some help to change my blog appearance, mainly because I want to use the whole screen and be able to show bigger pictures. Fingers crossed.

I hope you'll continue to use your Traveller blog too when you travel...


Joyful said...

Caroline, just keep on telling whatever stories move you. Your passion comes through :-)

Vagabonde said...

What an interesting series of posts on the river Plate. I wish the international community would get together to clean up this river. Until you mentioned it, it had not occurred to me about the name Argentina. In French the word silver is “argent” but I had not made the connection. Your posts are so informative – I have learnt more about Argentina from your posts than anywhere else in all my adult life.

Lonicera said...

Thank you Joyful and Vagabonde.
"Argentina" is of course also a feminine adjective in Spanish meaning silverlike or pertaining to silver, so the word is often used by journalists in double meaning. The rest of us mere mortals avoid it as being too corny. I'm so glad you've liked the posts - I've learned quite a lot myself as I researched it.

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