Seventy former Argentine army officers are accused of crimes against humanity for the alleged abuse, torture and, in one case, murder of their own troops during the 1982 war with Britain over the Falklands, or Malvinas, Islands. As the BBC’s Angus Crawford reports, the case has divided Argentina’s veteran community.
In 1982, Michael Savage was a student doing his military service, part of a force sent to invade the Falkland islands by the dictatorship then in power in Argentina.
One morning on patrol, his platoon came across a front line position.
“It was the coldest day of the war and, in the white snow, we saw a soldier staked to the ground, he was dying,” he said.
I asked him who was responsible for staking out the young man.
He told me it was his own corporal.
During his time on the island he saw many of the conscripts treated in the same way.
They lived in tents in sub-zero temperatures, their officers refused to issue proper rations and, fearing starvation, they stole food.
If caught they were brutally punished.
It’s justice. It’s very edifying for society to look the past in the eyes, for it never to happen againMichael Savage
“The punishment was ‘estaqueo’ – they would peg you to the ground and leave you crucified for hours, with minus 20, rain and even shelling,” he said.
One evening Michael was caught by a corporal stealing a tin of meat.
“He made me kneel down, pointed his gun on my head and I was crying and begging for him not to shoot,” he recalled.
He cannot forgive his superiors for what they did.
“They were our worst enemies, torturing us physically and psychologically,” he said.
After the brief war with Britain, Argentine forces were defeated, and soon after the dictatorship fell.
The conscripts were sent home and, according to Michael, no-one wanted to hear their stories.
“Society looked at us as part of the dictatorship, and the dictatorship looked at us as witnesses of a crime that had to be silenced,” he explained.
The brutality inflicted on civilians by the dictatorship was slowly revealed. Some 30,000 people had disappeared.
But no-one wanted to hear the stories from the conscripts.
Mario Volpe is a veteran, and explains that the military used the law to silence them.
“I was wounded and in a hospital and they came to see me and made me sign a document in which they told me I couldn’t talk about anything that happened,” he said.
He said ordinary people treated them like heroes, the government did not.
According to Cecim, a support group for veterans, the lack of recognition had a devastating effect.
Some 60% of veterans have no stable work, and many have problems with violence and alcohol.
More than 350 have killed themselves since 1982.
‘Time for justice’
Ernesto Alonso, the president of Cecim, says things have improved on the financial front, but much of it has come too late.
All the evidence which has been offered, not only will it not lead to legal satisfaction or the punishing of whoever committed the illegal act, it will also generate an enormous amount of frustrationCesar Trejo
Committee for the Families of the Fallen
“It’s like a medical emergency. If the doctor gets there in the first 10 minutes he saves your life, after that the complications begin… if they had tried to support us in the first 10 years things would have been different,” he said.
The silence about the abuse was only broken in 2005, with the release of a feature film, Blessed by Fire.
It showed the Argentine public in graphic detail how the conscripts were treated – and led directly to a criminal investigation.
Now 70 former officers face charges of crimes against humanity.
Edgardo Esteban wrote the book on which the film was based.
“Now is the time for justice. Without justice, it’s impossible to reclaim the story of the Malvinas and the heroes who were there and fought with dignity,” he said.
But not all veterans agree.
Cesar Trejo represents the Committee for the Families of the Fallen.
“All the evidence which has been offered, not only will it not lead to legal satisfaction or the punishing of whoever committed the illegal act, it will also generate an enormous amount of frustration,” he said.
He thinks some campaigners have a political axe to grind.
Two women waiting in his office also express doubts about the wisdom of the prosecutions.
“We gain nothing. You have to look to the future and toward the present with love, if not we can’t build anything,” one said.
The other agreed. “I think that God must be the one to judge.”
Michael Savage sees it very differently.
“It’s justice. It’s very edifying for society to look the past in the eyes, for it never to happen again.”