It may sound slightly morbid but I’ve always been drawn to learning about sad and horrific events in history. One of my favorite quotes is by Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When I travel, I also seek out sites that are connected with history, the good and the bad. On my last trip to Paris I visited the city’s Holocaust museum (Memorial de la Shoah), an excellent but certainly under-visited museum when compared to places like the Musee d’Orsay or the Louvre but an imperative site all the same in terms of understanding the country’s horrific involvement in the Holocaust. Next year marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice (it was signed on July 27). Standing at the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), the area that marks the border between North and South Korea was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve ever had knowing that because the war was never officially declared over, these two nations could go to war again in a blink of an eye.
While Argentina is fondly equated with tango, and first class beef and gauchos (Argentine cowboys), the country too like most in the world has a dark past that didn’t happen too long ago. From 1976 until 1983 the country was engaged in what would be known as the guerra sucia (dirty war), a time of state terrorism in Argentina. Estimates of the number killed or disappeared during this modern day “reign of terror” range from 9,000 to over 30,000. Exact numbers will never be known due to the extremely large number that disappeared. Victims were primarily from the left wing and included students, activists, journalists, trade unionists, and Marxists.
One of the most horrific events of the Guerra Sucia was the stealing of babies from those that were arrested and ultimately killed. These children were then given to military officials and their families who were childless. The stolen babies were famously immortalized in the 1985 Argentine film The Official Story. It is only in recent times that those involved in the killing, disappearances, and baby stealing have been brought to justice and convicted, mostly those at a high level. Jorge Rafael Videla, who led the military during most of the country’s dictatorship, was recently sentenced to 50 years in prison for executing a “systematic plan to steal babies from prisoners who were kidnapped, tortured, and killed during the military junta’s war on leftist dissidents.”
When I visited Buenos Aires I knew that I wanted to witness the march of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. These were women whose children disappeared during the Guerra Sucia and who in 1977 decided to gather together demanding answers on their missing children, even though it was dangerous for them and many were arrested themselves. Their numbers grew and eventually the government permitted the mothers to walk provided they didn’t talk to anyone. The mothers marched every Thursday around the Piramide de Mayo in the Plaza de Mayo. The mothers wore white panuelos (handkerchiefs) with their child’s name written on them, hoping that it would stand out to someone watching since the mothers were not allowed to speak to anyone. While the government closed the plaza for a time, the mothers continued their demand for answers and justice. Even when the military junta fell and democracy was restored in Argentina in the 1980s, many of their children’s murderers remained in positions of power, never answering for their crimes. It wasn’t until the 2000s that finally justice started to be had. Although the mothers ended their march of resistance in 2006, saying no more marches were needed since “the enemy isn’t in the government house anymore,” the mothers continue to march in support of action on other social causes.
When I watched the women march, right at 3:30 PM as they had done for decades, I was taken aback by their frailty and yet also deeply saddened knowing that these women had spent their entire lives never knowing the full truth about their missing loved one, never having a grave to visit. Five years after visiting, I wonder today if any of the women I saw marching have died; I only hope that in the afterlife they have been reunited with their missing son or daughter.
While my friend didn’t seem as keen on visiting, I had us check out the headquarters of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. It’s a building located near Plaza Congreso and even before stepping inside, you see the faces of the missing, los desaparecidos, staring down at you. It greatly reminded me of Holocaust museums I’ve visited where faces of the dead are grouped together. The headquarters features a bookstore, a library, and a cafe. I ended up purchasing a poster of a poem written by Argentine native Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and also a photograph of the mothers marching.
It’s not that I get a sense of enjoyment out of visiting sites that are connected with such tragic periods in history, but I feel they’re imperative to visit all the same in order to understand history, lest it happen again.