Never forgive, never forget

The story of one of Argentina's 30,000 disappeared


Scattered around Buenos Aires, unknown to many as they look like normal Porteño houses, are "sites of memory." These places in the late 1970s were among the hundreds of clandestine detention and torture centers, which many have now been converted into spaces to remember the horror of the dictatorship and also as cultural centers.

One of them is located at Virrey Cevallos, 630 in Buenos Aires just six blocks from the Congress - a Congress which in 1976 the military took control of,  leading to a seven year period of violence and oppression and to the state sanctioned murder and torture of around 30,000 people who are known as the “disappeared.” The city of Buenos Aires was stage and witness to many violent events during the dictatorship, while the public sphere could rapidly turn into a space of fear and terror. In the city today few visible traces of this past remain, but many places retain powerful memories from that period in history.

Virrey Cevallos 630, Buenos Aires.  Former detention centre, now a site of memory

At Virrey Cevallos, the journalist and language teacher Sergio Gorostiaga runs a regular literature and history class, for everyone and without cost. At these evenings Gorostiaga and his students, who range from 18 to 80, discuss literature, history and poetry through certain texts, but always with the memory of what happened in that place in mind. For Gorostiaga, whenever he teaches there he says he can feel almost the ghosts of the mostly young people who were detained there, who were "disappeared and suffered torture and humiliation, listen to us, so we can be with them in their absence."

As a journalist and language teacher, he knows all too clear that language is must more than grammar, but a cultural context which gives identification to words and speech. Within this cultural context is the period in Argentina known as the “dirty war,” which between 1976-1983 the right-wing military junta arrested, detained, tortured, killed and often dumped in the ocean anyone that though was a left-wing sympathizer, which was many tens of thousands of Argentines.

For Latin Americans the word, “desaparecidos” which translates into English as disappeared, is one of the most politically charged words. It desrcibes those who were abducted by the state, never to be seen again. Gorostiaga tells me that he is always surprised by foreigners knowledge of this part of Argentine history, which in some ways is testament to his, and the work of tens of thousands of other Argentines who struggle everyday to remember the history. Never forget, never forgive has become a catch cry for the journalist. And turning the former torture centrer from a place of horror into an emotional creative space is just one task.

During all this time, the movement has been torn between its political and institutional role, expressed in the demand for justice, and its symbolic role in the construction of a historical memory, actively promoting the need not to forget and developing in different ways and in a variety of settings the symbols and events that would foster the preservation of the vivid memory of the lived traumatic experience. The slogan “never forget, never forgive” was, in a sense, taken literally. If the second part of this slogan implied an ultimately lost battle against the state apparatus, which eventually pardoned the guilty and stopped the continuation of trials, the first part implied a social and cultural operation involving a symbolic power struggle of considerable magnitude. The moving idea is that only through remembering can avoidance of such violations be ensured-as if "never again" could only be guaranteed by the constant remembrance of the terror experienced during the dictatorship.

Never forget, never forgive has become a catch cry

Indeed, the current administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner have been instrumental in helping carry on Gorostiaga's catch cry of never forget, never forgive. Between 1990 and 2002, the Presidency of Carlos Menem purposely closed off the question of the past, favoring a "forgive-and-forget" policy regarding accountability, at whose heart rested the pardons granted to many of the dictatorship’s leaders in Jorge Ragael Videl and Leopoli Galtieri at the beginning of his mandate. These laws of impunity challenged the collective memory. If members of the army and the navy were not responsible, should society just forget what had happened and move on?

It was not until the government of Nestor Kirchner that a different ideology of the past was legitimized. His government was a turning point for the numerous organizations in Argentina who were fighting to have their memories of the dictatorship recognized.  In 2003, Kirchner repealed the amnesty laws and opened the door for prosecutions of former members of the regime. He also established the March 24 as El Dia de la Memoria.  This was the first time in 20 years that the national government became involved in the demands against the dictatorship. The quest for constructing a collective memory that includes information about the disappeared children and grandchildren had existed since the beginning of the dictatorship, but under Kirchner it was given official recognition.

The School of Naval Mechanics, known as ESMA which is now a site of memory.

Although there are some fair criticisms of Kirchner's moves, under him memory centers were created, those responsible were actively sought after, international cooperation for extradition was sought and new judges were appointed to the Supreme Court who would be willing to put to trial those responsible for the state crimes.

Sergio is slightly at pains to talk of his own story, saying that his story is the story of thousands of Argentines. He was forced to flee the country during this period, living in Spain in exile for a decade. For him, exile is a painful escape, an escape which was forced on so many. It was leave those and the place you loved, or be killed. That was the choice. 

It was leave those and the place you loved, or be killed.

He has spent months hiding out in various neighborhoods across the city, Centennial Park, Belgrano, always receiving death threats, his mother too. As a result he lived all over Buenos Aires, hiding out, often with people he didn’t know, nor can remember now. Scared for his life to even leave the house to buy bread. Separated from his family. It was better if just one was taken, not the whole lot was the reasoning behind this.

Once the plane took off to Madrid, it was a new life. And It was during his time living in Madrid that he reflected on the horror, the large scale dimensions of the mass murder and fear. It was this time also that he realized the difference between the individual and the collective. And to skip forward to now, the remembering of the collective over the individual is something which keeps those in Argentina, arguably more so than any other Latin American country, able to face the demons of its past, and not try and wish them away. On his leaving as much as on his return, he was scared to death.  The Argentina that once was, would never be again.

The Argentina that once was, would never be again.

But not only was it Gorostiaga's frightening horrible experience, the disappeared is a deeply personal one. One of his most formative. His brother Pablo was one of the tens of thousands of disappeared.

Pablo, like many thousands of Argentine youth in the 1970s was a part of the Peronist youth, a leftist organization that supported the former president Juan Peron, and that attempted to push him further to the left. As a promising young law student he then joined the more militant left-wing Monteneros, which even today has been misrepresented as "urban terrorists," which albeit militant leftists were a product of their time, struggling for an anti-imperialist, leftist Argentina.

Pablo Gorostiaga, disappeared by the Argentine Military Junta in 1976
Pablo Gorostiaga, disappearerd by the Argentine Military Junta in 1976 

But it would be these ideas he held, that would be the reason for the ending of his life still as a youth forming his ideology, at 20 years old. He was kidnapped by military police and disappeared. Never to be seen or heard of again. And it was not only Pablo, this was a common story in the 1970s in Argentina. The majority of those disappeared were between 15 and 26 years old and mostly students and low paid workers.

Gorostiaga, naturally, went looking for signs of his brother after his disappearance. After decades of searching through archives, talking to hundreds of people and continually pushing authorities he was able to piece together something of what happened to Pablo after he was kidnapped.

Like many of the disappeared, he was taken to the School of Naval Mechanics, known as ESMA which is now a site of memory. It was here he was kept for several months and tortured daily with thousands of others becoming dangerously malnourished like so many photos we are accustomed to seeing of prisoners of war. He was then transferred to the south of the country to Bahia Blanca to a clandestine detention and torture centknown as "the Little School."

The note that appeared in the newspaper Pagina 12 after the disappearance of Pablo

 Sergio tells me of the many testimonies he collected of Pablo during the time, of his poor physical condition, but also his courage while he was being tortured. Sergio recounts, holding back tears of pride, that Pablo would insult the torturers and not submit anything to them, making them angrier and surprising many of the military in the chamber of horrors.

He was then transferred to the province of Cordoba in the center of the country, away from urban areas. The continual transfer would mean that it was nearly impossible to track anyone down, nor find accurate records. In Cordoba he was in either the towns of La Ribera or La Perla, small country towns in which the farmers were in cahoots with the military. It should be remembered that it was not only a military dictatorship, but a civic military one. Large swathes of civil society were at least complicit in the genocide.

I ask him why does he think the complicity happened. Without wanting to recount Hannah Arendt, he tells me, it was fear and ignorance. Not through any particularly ideological thought. An anecdote is given: he has around 40 cousins. During the dictatorship, all but two talked to him and his mother after Pablo had been kidnapped. All but two were either too scared to be associated with a disappeared, and by association a communist, or too stupid, or too complicit he says. Something which hurts him to this day.

Complicity happened ... because of fear and ignorance.

After this Sergio is not sure what happened to Pablo, but he has come up with a few possible conclusions to the end of Pablo's life at the hands of the state. He was either killed and buried in one of the small towns near Cordoba, or like thousands others loaded into a plane and dumped into the sea, still alive.

However Goriastiaga still holds out hope that with the work he is doing with forensic anthropologists he can find what really happened to his little brother. Although the chances are slim, he won’t stop.

Sergio wrote a poem for Pablo: 

          The forecast was relatively humid and cloudy

          moderate winds to the southeast

         12 degrees maximum, 8 the minimum

         and the horoscope could be seen as likely

         it could be read verbatim on a short trip, think on it

         On July 31 of 1976

         twenty years ago according to the tango

         there are nothing of these things in the newspaper

         Never forget, never forgive

         we remember you always

         your mother, Sergio, and Claudia

Pablo would insult the torturers and not submit anything to them, making them angrier and surprising many of the military in the chamber of horrors.

But it's not only trying to find out what happened to Pablo, is it the active creation of memory. Across the city of Buenos Aires and further in Argentina there are placards that bear his name, in the suburb of Belgrano there is a commemoration plaque which is passed by thousands each day, and the buildings in which Pablo was tortured have at least some marker left by his brother Sergio. Sergio also keeps a file of photos, notes, letters and his death notice in the paper Pagina 12. Pablo will never be forgotten. The crimes of the state against him will never be forgotten.

Sergio himself also bares the psychological scars of his and his country’s experience. I ask him if he can tell me anything about those who came to his house looking for him, or those he think took Pablo. He looks away for a moment, and is unusually silent for a moment. He says he would prefer not to elaborate a lot on this, and over time all of the faces have been blurred, maybe as a way his mind uses to hide the trauma.

In the suburb of Belgrano there is a commemoration plaque for Pablo which is passed by thousands each day

But there was one face that stands out. Even with the passing years, he has dreamed of this face. When he arrived one afternoon to question his family he was wearing blue jeans, a white shirt with a yellow v-neck sweater and black polished shoes. But it was his psychopathic look in his eyes that Sergio remembers best, something which has marked him for life. He beat himself and his at the time teen brother Pablo, and saying this that Sergio says he can not repeat to me, talking incessantly. He was armed to the teeth.

For years he searched photos looking for him, going to court trials, trying to remember the man of his nightmares. Then one day while watching a trial of the military on television in 201 he froze. There the man was. It was the man known as "the blond angel of death." The intelligence captain of the Navy, Alfredo Astiz. He was also responsible for kidnapping some of the founders of the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, as well as countless others.

Alfredo Astiz, the "Blonde Angel of Death." It was his psychopathic look in his eyes that Sergio remembers best

He is now in prison with several life sentences, but it was not without a fight to get him there. In 1986 and 1987, Argentina passed the Pardon Laws, providing a kind of amnesty to military and security officers for crimes committed during the Dirty War. But under Nestor Kirchner, the Pardon Laws were ruled as unconstitutional and war crimes were re-opened. Together with numerous other defendants associated with the Naval School of Mechanics, Astiz was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Argentina for crimes against humanity on October 26, 2011.

The story of the disappeared is a harrowing one. And even though it is something I have been studying for close to a decade now, all the stories still chill me to the bone. And it is something unrecognizable for those who have not been submitted to the terror of the state, it is something beyond comprehension.

However there is a side that is comprehensible, and a part that is truly admirable, and that is active memory. Memories are what construct us as thinking humans. Without memories and experiences we are nothing. Memory is what we are. Your very soul and your very reason to be alive are tied up in memory.

"The cerebral action of memory is something important for healing the country's deep, deep wounds left by the dictatorship"
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo protesting during the dictatorship in the 1979

So for Argentina, not only is the cerebral action of memory something important for healing the country's deep, deep wounds left by the dictatorship, but physically participating is necessary. Whether this be the current government pursuing those responsible to finally have them pay, albeit usually only for the last years of their life behind bars for their cold-blooded crimes, to the participation in memory events right down to talking to other Argentines and the outside world about what really happened.

Events such as this leave huge emotional scars on individuals and countries. People feel guilty. "Why did my brother get taken, and not me?" many have asked. The country as a whole also feels a great sense of shame for what happened. And guilt represses feelings. Makes people want to hide from the truth. Active memory is, on at least one side, a fight against the guilt a mechanism which the dictatorship used to continue its genocide.

It is clear that the country as a whole has been a victim. But this can not justify the totality of the situation, nor leave any rock unturned. Memory is complex. But it is the key to not letting this happen again, and the way to heal wounds, albeit painfully.

Memory is complex. But the key to not letting this happen again, and the way to heal wounds, albeit painfully.
The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue their active  push for memory of those disappeared by the State

Sergio remarks to me about the death of Jorge Videla, the head of the military junta, possibly the most despicable man in the history of Argentina. A few years ago, when Videla died in jail, he was a little shocked of the joy of many. But he himself was not glad of Videla's death, even after all he had done.

He recounts, choosing his words carefully, that he accepts and even relished the sadness that thinking of Videla can give to him. It is through this sadness that Argentina can remember not only the 30,000 disappeared, the detained, the tortured, the raped, the stolen children, but also their entire families that were affected. The number affected was ten times that.

Also, at his death, it is a time to remember that Argentina must never return to those horrors. The people need to distinguish themselves, lead by example. The memory of these people in this manner is a key to stitching the nation's psyche back together.