31 March 2007

The Argentinian victims of the Falklands war

It will soon be the 25th anniversary of the invasion of the Falklands and a war that claimed over 900 dead - a war that can be blamed fairly and squarely on Galtieri and his junta. This story in today's Telegraph is sadly one that has been repeated over the centuries. Few regard old soldiers (or sailors or airmen) for long even if their victories were glorious. The situation is far worse if you are on the losing side. This is the reality that many Argentinian veterans of that war have faced.

When Jorge Martire met his wife-to-be, Maria Laura, he never mentioned his time on the Falklands. The couple had three children, Mr Martire found a job at a local government office in La Plata, south of Buenos Aires, while studying to become an architect. Then in 1992, something snapped.

In his hospital bed, being treated for atypical psychosis - known by veterans as "Malvinas syndrome" after the Argentine name for the islands - it all finally came flooding out. "He told me how he had been hungry and thirsty. They were terrified," Maria Laura remembered. "Under cover but always wet. And all the time it was dark. Really dark with flashes of bombs and guns."

On March 1, 1993, he slipped out of the hospital and bought a gun. Then he had a coffee in a bar, and afterwards walked into the lavatory and shot himself. Jorge Martire, who was 18 when he was conscripted, joined the ever growing ranks of Argentina's Falklands fighters to have died long after the country's battle with Britain for control of the islands.

Britain lost 258 servicemen in the conflict. Twenty-five years later, there are no exact figures, but relatives of the Argentine dead believe that more of their countrymen have now committed suicide because of the trauma than the 650 men who were killed on the battlefield or at sea. The most conservative estimate is 350. "Only now, is the reality of what we went through finally being talked about," said Edgardo Esteban, a veteran and journalist who has made the one and only feature film in Argentina about the conflict. Illuminated by Fire is not a story of heroes and glory but a catalogue of military incompetence and cruelty, human suffering and shattered lives.

One conscript, now a public prosecutor in La Plata, describes how he was pinned in a crucifix position with tent pegs onto the sodden freezing ground on Wireless Ridge as a punishment for raiding the military food store rooms back in Stanley. "The same military who were running the Dirty War went to the Malvinas," said Mr Esteban. "They did the same things to the conscripts as they did to political opponents at home. They saw us as civilians who needed softening up."

When the Argentine troops came home, they were ordered by the humiliated military junta not to speak about their experiences and viewed with contempt and shame by much of the population. The young veterans slunk quietly back to their homes and struggled to find jobs or girlfriends. Many of the veteran suicides have been recorded in the northern provinces of Chacos and Corrientes, where conscripts had not only never used a gun but had never seen the sea or snow before being sent to the Falklands.

Even after the fall of the military junta in 1983, democratic governments have provided little support for the veterans. They were only awarded pensions - modest ones - in 1991. Many, particularly those left crippled, resorted to begging on commuter trains. Today's government, under President Nestor Kirchner, a former victim of Argentina's military regime in the 1970s, is determined to set right the years of neglect for human rights. He has increased veterans' pensions, but only after the more strident among them camped out for weeks outside his presidential pink palace in Buenos Aires demanding not to be ignored any longer.

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