In 1982, Argentina was governed by a dictatorship under the command of Lieutenant General Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri, a regime that had controlled the country for six years. On 30 March of that year, the worker’s movement in Buenos Aires organized a march at the Plaza de Mayo. In the years prior, the military had kidnapped and murdered thousands of citizens, had suppressed the right to strike and forbidden any union activity. Yet, at that demonstration in March, fifty thousand people came together to protest under the slogan ‘Peace, Bread and Work’, shouting in unison, ‘Galtieri, son of a bitch!’ By the end of the event, three thousand people had been detained.
Just two days later, on 2 April, and at the same Plaza, one hundred thousand euphoric citizens brandished national flags and placards with the motto ‘Long Live our Navy’, while a roar advanced like the prow of a monstrous ship: ‘Galtieri, Galtieri!’ Images broadcast over the television showed the Lieutenant General thronged by a multitude of people fighting to get close enough to embrace him. The impassioned voice of an anchor woman announced: ‘His Excelentísimo Señor, the President of the Nation, has come out to address the people! Everyone is cheering… him and the Armed Forces on for the historic stance they’ve taken in recent hours. Thanks be to our glorious Armed Forces!’
The anchor woman, the people, the Lieutenant Coronel, were all celebrating the landing of the Argentine national forces on the Islas Malvinas a few hours earlier, an archipelago in the South Atlantic known as the ‘Falkland Islands’ by the British, who have retained dominion over them for 149 years, though that sovereignty has been under endless dispute.
A short war ensued, from the demonstration on 2 April, lasting just seventy-four days. The conflict brought only minor disruptions. The Argentinian national soccer team traveled to the World Cup in Spain; they lost their debut game to Belgium. And the war ended the following day, 14 June. Lieutenant Coronel Galtieri announced the surrender: ‘Our soldiers fought for the dignity of our nation with supreme effort. Those who fell will be kept forever alive in our hearts and in the annals of history… We have our heroes… Their names shall be inscribed by us and by future generations.’
Six hundred and forty-nine Argentine soldiers and officers died in combat.
It took thirty-five years for the names of more than one hundred of those soldiers to finally be inscribed. Not in the annals of history, but on their gravestones.
Thousands of soldiers came home after the war, but the state never officially reported the deaths of those who didn’t, save a few exceptions. Hundreds of families traveled from base to base, day after day, in search of the living dead. Meanwhile, the British military, which had lost 255 soldiers, dispatched a 32-year-old officer named Geoffrey Cardozo to the islands, to aid the troops in the post-war period. Cardozo faced an unexpected panorama: the bodies of the fallen Argentines still lay scattered about the fields. He sent word to his superiors, and in November 1982, the British government sent a dispatch to the Argentine military junta asking what to do.
According to the historian Federico Lorenz, ‘The official British inquiry contained the word repatriation, which the Argentines found inadmissible, since for them, the islands belonged to national territory.’ Britain offered to send them back to Argentina, but for the ruling military junta, they already were in the homeland. Hence the fate of hundreds came down to a question of semantics. Geoffrey Cardozo received orders not to return the bodies to the Argentine mainland, but to build a cemetery on the islands. He located a spot on the Darwin Isthmus. He was able to collect 230 bodies, but 122 of them – lacking dog tags or documentation – had remained unidentified. He moved the bodies, all of them, to the cemetery. He wrapped each one in three different bags, and on the last layer, in indelible ink, he wrote the name of the site where the soldier had fallen. He inscribed a sentence on each one of the crosses where a nameless body had been laid to rest: ‘Argentine soldier known only to God’. He prepared a report and sent it to his government, which sent it on to the Red Cross, which sent it on to the Argentine government. The cemetery was inaugurated on 19 February 1983. Cardozo returned to England. He has never returned to the islands, and has never stopped thinking about them, either.
In 1982, a military man named Héctor Cisneros – whose brother, also in the military, had died in the war and whose remains had not been identified – founded the Comisión de familiares de caídos en Malvinas (Malvinas Fallen Relatives Commission). He established a clear line of thought: all of the fallen – soldiers and officers – were heroes; representing the last Argentine bastion on the islands, that’s where they should remain.
The dictatorship ended the following year, democracy was restored, and the war was recorded in collective memory as a dying regime’s last-gasp attempt to unite the populace around an epic cause. Not a single one of the succeeding democratic governments, nor the armed forces, contacted – or made a registry of – the fallen soldiers’ families.
In 1999, an agreement between the two countries endowed the Fallen Relatives Commission with the preservation of the cemetery, and in 2004, one of Argentina’s wealthiest businessmen, Eduardo Eurnekian, financed its renovation. He replaced the wooden crosses with ones made of white concrete, and raised a cenotaph with the names of the fallen soldiers. The Argentine media started publishing images of the site on anniversaries of the war, its clean, arterial forms, a geometry crucified by the winds, which many believed an empty, symbolic space.
Throughout those years, the British officer, Geoffrey Cardozo, retained a copy of his government report, convinced the Argentine State had made it available to the fallen soldiers’ families. But in 2008, he found it wasn’t the case: the families had no idea it existed.
‘When I was on the islands,’ Geoffrey Cardozo explained, ‘my director told me, “Geoffrey, you’ve got to bury those soldiers.” So I made a detailed register, because something inside told me that at some point, their country might want to exhume them, to see if they could be identified. I left feeling troubled that I hadn’t been able to identify all of them.’
In 2008, twenty-seven years after the war, an ex-combatant, Julio Aro, arrived in London to attend a conference on post-traumatic stress disorder. The organisers assigned him an interpreter: Geoffrey Cardozo. For three days, Cardozo listened, incredulous, to Julio Aro’s story, his account of taking his first ever trip to Darwin Cemetery that year, of not understanding why he couldn’t locate the names of companions he’d buried there. Especially Aro’s disbelief that so many bodies could still be unidentified.
‘That’s when I had a fit,’ Cardozo says. ‘I had delivered the report to my government, who sent it to the Red Cross, and the Argentine government. In 1983. And yet they were still in the dark about everything. One night, Julio Aro and I went to a pub and I handed him my report, and said “You’ll know what to do with it.”’
But Julio Aro understood nothing, because he spoke not a word of English.
Julio Aro, ex-combatant and founder of the No Me Olvides (‘Don’t Forget Me’) Foundation, which supports people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, went to war at the age of nineteen, shortly after completing his military service, which was compulsory at the time.
‘Geoffrey hands me an envelope at the pub, and says “You’ll know what to do with it.” And takes off. Everything was in English.’ Julio explains in a bar in Palermo, in Buenos Aires ‘I had it translated when we got back to Argentina. And when I read it, I felt like blasting the whole lot of them. The report showed where each body had been found, where they were now buried, and it claimed that they’d petitioned the Argentine government to send a group of specialists to help recognize the ones that Geoffrey hadn’t been able to identify. And the government did nothing.’
There was a number in the report – 16.100.924 – which Cardozo had located on the back of a medal. Aro knew it had to be an ID. He googled it and, bingo, it belonged to Gabino Ruíz Díaz, nineteen years old, a casualty of war. Cardozo went to a local social security office, a division that paid out retirements and pensions, and asked a friend for a little, illicit, favor.
‘I told him, “I need to know who’s cashing this soldier’s pension.” He checked and told me: “Elma Pelozzo, who lives in San Roque, Corrientes.” I figured she had to be Gabino’s mother. I traveled to San Roque with two friends, a thousand kilometers away. We found her. We asked: “Elma, would you like to know where your son is laid to rest in the cemetery?’” She said: “How could I not?” That’s when we said: “This mom wants to know. Where are the other mothers?”’
No one, not the state, not the military, had any idea where they were. It became his task to find them.
‘But first, I went to see Luis Fondebrider.’
‘We always said that identifying them would be achievable,’ said Luis Fondebrider, a founding member and president of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, which was established with the objective of applying forensic anthropology to cases of state violence and crimes against humanity. Aro wanted to know if the fallen soldiers could be identified. Fondebrider said the graves are well-ordered, and in a very specific place, and there is potentially a lot of DNA material available – yes, identification was possible. But no politician wanted to touch it.
There were obstacles to overcome, like searching for relatives, and exhuming the dead in a territory under British rule; but it seemed like a noble task. To identify. To perform death rites before the proper crosses. Who could be against that?
Julio Aro began by contacting Gabriela Cociffi, a journalist who in 2008, was the editor of Gente magazine. She had covered the war when she was 23 years old, and had stayed with the subject ever since. Julio Aro told her about Cardozo’s report, his visit with Gabino’s mother, and his intention to search for the others. ‘Let’s go,’ Cociffi said. They ventured out into cities and towns on their own. They located elderly parents who recreated a son’s death as if stitching together an old piece of gossip; others held out hope, they must still be out there, somewhere, in a state of fugue. Nearly all the relatives said they wanted to know the truth.
There was however one group that categorically resisted the process of identification: the mothers and fathers of the Malvinas Fallen Relatives Commission – the organisation founded by Héctor Cisneros, and tasked with the ongoing preservation of the cemetery. This group believed the push to identify the bodies of fallen soldiers was part of a plan to return them to the continent, and thereby eliminate the last traces of Argentina on the islands.
In 2010, declassified documents revealed that during Galtieri’s dictatorship, Héctor Cisneros had been an intelligence agent of Battalion 601. Cisneros resigned from the Fallen Relatives Commission, and a new president took his place – Delmira Cao, mother of Julio Cao, a fallen soldier, unidentified.
Like Cisneros, Cao was also against the process of identification.
Regardless, Aro and Cociffi held firm, raising awareness as much as possible. They had made attempts to approach the Office of the President, occupied at the time by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, but the state showed no interest in taking on a subject that combined a dictatorship’s war and its causalities, which included both drafted soldiers and the military regime’s officers, and a Commission founded by a man who had once belonged to its intelligence services.
But an email kicked it all off. In December 2011, Gabriela Cociffi sent a message to the British musician Roger Waters, from Pink Floyd, who was planning a concert tour in Argentina: ‘We’re asking that you help these mothers of the Malvinas who for thirty years, have been bereft of a place to say a prayer or lay a flower.’ On 6 March 2012, Waters met with Cristina Kirchner and asked about the unidentified Argentine soldiers.
Less than a month later, on 2 April, the president announced that she’d ‘sent a letter to the director of the International Red Cross to… intercede with the United Kingdom to identify the fallen Argentine, and even British, men, who haven’t yet been identified. A short time later, the Red Cross organized a task force with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Social Development. They began traveling around the country, interviewing families and gathering DNA samples.
That’s when the real trouble began.
Virginia Urquizu is a member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who interviewed many of the family members.
‘My first was with a mother who had lost her only son. We rang the doorbell. A man answered: ‘I’m on my way down, I’m her son.’ ‘Something’s up,’ we said. The fallen soldier didn’t have a brother. The mom was inside, surrounded by ex-combatants who had come to pressure her against giving the sample. They told us we were desecraters of graves, that it was all a maneuver to get their remains brought back to the continent. The woman said, “I’m doing what my sons tell me to do.” And she refused to give us a sample.’
Héctor Cisneros, ex-president of the Commission, greeted the Red Cross task force saying: ‘I refuse to give you a sample, and I’ll do everything in my power to make sure this work is not carried to fruition.’
Carlos Somigliana, another member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology team, recalls the three years he spent traveling the country, interviewing relatives.
‘They’d say “No, sure, the Malvinas, it’s a national cause, super important.” But all the while we were strapped for cash, without the means to get things done, often having to pay for gas, hotels, out of our own pockets. But it was so heartwarming to see the way people welcomed us. We had to be careful to manage expectations. To warn them of the chance that the Argentine government might reach an agreement with the British allowing exhumation, but it could take a year, ten years, or maybe never. And the Commission was against us at the time, saying the process would be like a carnival of bones.’
An official agreement was signed between Argentina, UK and the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2016, three years after the task force had started working, and now under a government led by Mauricio Macri. It established that the work would be done by experts from Argentina, Britain and Spain; that they would only be allowed to open the graves of unidentified soldiers; that the bodies would be exhumed and reburied on the same day (given the families’ concerns over the bodies being removed from the cemetery); and that the work would be done in the austral winter of 2017, between June and September. The agreement was called the Humanitarian Project Plan.
Meanwhile, the presidency of the Fallen Relatives Commission changed hands once again in October of that same year, and Delmira Cao was replaced by María Fernanda Araujo, whose brother, Eduardo Araujo, was one of the unidentified soldiers. She, like her predecessors, was against identification.
Yet the Humanitarian Project Plan was launched in June, 2017. Amid the islands’ landscape of violent stoicism, the CICR built a laboratory beside the cemetery, made up of four containers.
‘When we saw that Cardozo had placed them in double or triple bags, and had written down the names of the sites where the bodies had been found, we realized it would be very simple,’ Luis Fondebrider says. ‘Documents had been tucked in layers of clothing. One day, when revising a body, I found a document suggesting it was María Fernanda Araujo’s brother, the president of the Fallen Relatives Commission, who had refused to give us a DNA sample. So we went back to the family, asking again if they would like to give us one.’
The remains of 122 Argentine soldiers were analyzed, exhumed from 121 graves (in one of the graves there were two bodies), and samples were sent to three laboratories. The first results came back in December, and within three months, they achieved ninety positive identifications. A trip to the islands with the first participating relatives was organized on 26 March 2018, financed by Eduardo Eurnekian, the same businessman who had financed the cemetery’s renovations back in 2004. The families arrived at the military base in Darwin, and were driven to the cemetery. They descended like a cautious stream finding its way back to a dry riverbed, walking in silence to gravesites. Three hours later, they headed back to the continent. Many of them had picked up stones from around the graves, but were obliged to relinquish them at security.
On 9 May 2019, a flood washed through the street a block down from Raquel Folch’s house in José León Suárez, a suburb of the city of Buenos Aires. Folch stands ready and waiting in her doorway, on a street named after her dead brother: Soldier Andrés Aníbal Folch.
‘It’s a tough place to be when it rains.’
The inside is flushed in a bluish light. Carmen and Ana, Raquel’s sisters, are sitting at the table. Ana was the first of her family to migrate to Buenos Aires, at thirteen, from the province of Tucumán, tired of being paid in vouchers at the sugar factory where she worked.
‘Mamá came next, then Silveria. Then Papá, Francisco. My little brother Andrés.
‘Andrés had to do military service in 1981,’ Raquel says. ‘He hated it, hated the military.’
In March 1982, fifteen days before Easter, Andrés Folch left his regiment to visit his family.
‘When he was here, he told me we would be spending the holidays together,’ Raquel says. ‘He thought they were going to furlough him. But he never showed up. Ana and her husband went to find out what had happened. They’d already shipped him off to the Malvinas.’
The Folch family learned about the end of the war on television, and the soldiers’ return by word of mouth.
‘We heard his regiment was returning, so we headed over,’ Ana said. ‘We started making plans for a barbecue. We asked around for my brother. We shouted: “Folch, Folch!”. Until a Major approached and said, “Stop looking for him. He died in the Malvinas.” With all the presidents who have come and gone, nobody has ever bothered to come and say a word to us.’
‘In 2013, they called me from Human Rights to see if I wanted to give a DNA sample,’ Raquel says. ‘I said yes. But I hadn’t asked my sisters.’
‘We don’t belong to the Commission, but we said no,’ Ana says. ‘Because they were saying they wanted to bring the bodies back to the continent.’
‘But a few years later, I saw the man on TV who explained the work they were doing, and I said “This is serious, we have to give the sample.” So we did,’ Carmen says. And it was a positive DNA match’, meaning it was her brother’s body.
‘His childhood wasn’t easy, and then he was sent to suffer in a war, and remain there,’ Raquel says. ‘A useless war.’
‘Do you have any keepsakes from your brother?’
Raquel gets up, steps into a room bathed in agonal light, and looks for something on a rod with hangers. She pulls out a Lois jean jacket, which were in fashion back in the 80s.
‘This is all I have,’ she says, holding up the empty jacket.
On 12 June 2019, at 12.13 a.m., María Fernanda Araujo, sitting president of the Fallen Relatives Commission, sends a message regarding her interview for this piece: ‘Letting you know that tomorrow we won’t be around. We’ll have to reschedule.’ She answers her phone the following day and explains why she had cancel, to attend an annual event:
‘The commemoration of the batalla de Monte Longdon. The event takes place at the 7th Regiment of La Plata. They set up crosses for the fallen, and at 5.15 p.m. the bombs and bullets commence and a soldier stands behind my brothers’ cross and says, ‘Soldier Araujo, presente!’. You can’t imagine how nice it is.’
Every year, María Fernanda Araujo, sister of Eduardo Araujo, travels the seventy kilometers from Buenos Aires to the barracks at La Plata, to spend the night on the base with other members of the Fallen Relatives Commission, and watch the sun go down the next day amid a tumult of explosives imitating the bombs that killed her brother.
‘I hated the military. But my brother loved that uniform. He did his military service in 1981, and swore to defend his homeland.’
She was nine years old when the war ended, and went with her father to find her brother at his regiment when the soldiers returned. She climbed onto his shoulders and he told her: ‘Shout out Araujo.’
‘And I shouted. “Araujo, Araujo!” And a soldier told my viejo, “He won’t be coming.” Back at home, my dad, in full knowledge, said nothing to my mother. So she continued looking for him. The table was always set with an empty dish and Eduardo’s photo. Before each meal, my viejo would have us raise our glasses to his portrait.’
María Fernanda got married, had children, got divorced, worked in a hair salon, and finally became the secretary of the Fallen Relatives Commission when Cisneros was the president. When Cisneros left, Delmira Cao came in. And finally, María Fernanda took over herself. But from María Fernanda’s perspective, it was ‘César Trejo at the head of everything, a war veteran who the reigns of the institution. In the Commission, we were one hundred percent against identification,’ she says, ‘It’s a sad story. The CECIM, a center of ex-combatants in favor of identification, had started referring to the fallen soldiers as NN (nomen nescio, meaning ‘name unknown’). She disagreed. ‘My brother didn’t go missing during the dictatorship, he died in a war.’ The distinction was important: the desaparecidos, or people who went missing during the dictatorship, were largely armed, left-wing militants, who had nothing at all to do either conceptually or ideologically with the soldiers who died in the war.
But César Trejo took advantage of the confusion and started conjuring spooks. He told people: ‘If they don’t get identified, they’ll be mistaken for people who went missing during the dictatorship, the desaparecidos; and if they do get identified, the authorities will want to bring the remains back from the island.’ ‘But one day, I asked my mother if she would like to provide a sample,’ says María Fernanda. ‘She said “if other moms need it, and they’re leaving the bodies where they found them, then I’ll do it.” I called Claudio Avruj, the secretary of Human Rights at that time, and told him “Sit me down with the people doing this work.” He arranged the meeting. We asked a thousand questions and they answered every one. César Trejo was present, and when we left, he said: ‘We’re going after a writ of protection, right? To avoid identification.’ And I said ‘You didn’t understand a thing. Ciao, flaco.”’
María Fernanda Araujo, her mother and other relatives from the Commission, decided to give blood samples. They were taken at the Commission’s headquarters on 11 April 2018. It didn’t take long for them to be notified of the positive identification. ‘Had I known it was going to bring closure, I’d have brought a bottle of champagne and uncorked it,’ she says today.
On 15 March 2019, the Commission released a statement talking about the fallen soldiers who ‘now have a grave with their name on it’, and acknowledged those who made it possible, from the Secretary for Human Rights, to Julio Aro, to the Forensic Anthropology Team, and the Red Cross. All of whom for years had been the Commision’s great leviathan. In September 2020, the UK and Argentine governments signed an agreement for a new phase of the project: to identify the bodies in the mass graves. As of October 2020, 115 fallen soldiers had been identified, and seven remained unnamed.
Delmira Cao is now eighty. A pine tree stands outside her window in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, a tall one now, which had barely poked above the sill when her son Julio left home more than thirty-five years ago. She’s one of the survivors of a devastated family. First, her son died in the war. Then the father of her son died. Then the remaining son. The apartment was part of the steel factory her husband Julio had built.
‘But it all fell apart when he died. I sold the machinery and couldn’t even tell you what I did with the checks.’
They led a placid life before it happened. Julio, one of two sons, was a schoolteacher. On 30 March 1982, he took part in the union demonstrations, walking to the Plaza de Mayo. He was hoarse by the time he got home, from shouting against Galtieri all day. He was twenty-one years old, and married to Clara, who was five months pregnant.
‘Two days later he told me, “Mamá, they’re recruiting for the Malvinas, and I’m signing up.” I told him, “You can’t, you’re going to have a daughter!” And he said “How can I teach my students about heroes if I leave my compañeros to defend the homeland on their own?”
Is it possible that a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher bid farewell with such noble words? Delmira says yes, it is. Julio Cao went to war. His mother spent weeks praying so hard it hurt.
‘When the war ended, they said the soldiers were returning to the base, so his wife, eight months pregnant by then, went to fetch him with my brother and one of my daughters.
But they couldn’t find him. The jaws of a few of the soldiers who knew him dropped when they saw the pregnant woman who didn’t know she was a widow yet.
‘A colonel was there. He asked for my brother’s phone number and said he’d have news soon. He called that same day to tell us that Julio had died. Two days later, Walter Neira, an ex-combatant, came to my house to say that Julio had been blown to smithereens by a bomb.’
And that – blown to smithereens by a bomb – was, in thousands of interviews and speeches, what Delmira reiterated: ‘My son was blown to smithereens, there’s nothing left of him.’
‘My husband fell into depression, and died of cancer in 1990. Then in 1996, my son Roberto died of HIV. Before he passed, he said “Those veterans are your sons, stay close to them.” So, the veterans became my sons. But my daughters hated it. I’d say “Malvinas” and they’d say “Shut up”.’
‘During your time in the Commission, you were against identifying the bodies.’
‘Yes. The Commission was very hard-nosed. But we were afraid they meant to bring the bodies back. When María Fernanda Araujo took over as president, the tune changed. It had never really mattered to me, because I thought there was nothing left of Julio.
But there was. Some time ago, Delmira discovered that the account she had been given of her son’s death, which she had believed for more than thirty years, was mistaken.
‘Walter Neira, the ex-combatant who told me that Julio had been blown to smithereens, dies. And Esteban Tries, an ex-combatant who is a close friend of mine, goes on television and says that they had buried Julio’s body. One of my daughters calls him and asks if it’s true what he said about Julio’s remains. Tries says it is. And my daughter says: “I want to give the DNA sample.” We did and it came out positive.’
‘You knew Esteban Tries.’
‘And he never told you how your son had died?’
‘They didn’t want to step on the story Walter Neira told us. And I’d already given a thousand speeches saying there was nothing left of my son. They didn’t want to contradict me.’
‘Do you wish you’d given the sample earlier?’
‘Yes, I do. We had issues with Julio Aro and CECIM, saying our sons were desaparecidos.’
‘What was the problem with Aro?
‘It was really César Trejo who had the problem, he’s another veteran. A wonderful person, but he can be peculiar. He adores me. And I adore him.’
Esteban Tries belongs to a group called ‘Malvinas, Education and Values’. He went to war at nineteen, and is apparently the key to a mechanism that was set in motion by an ex-combatant – Walter Neira – who tells a mother – Delmira Cao – something he thought he saw, and the mother’s decision – to oppose identification – based on a mistake. Tries, who was also against identification, claims it wasn’t until 2017 when another ex-combatant, Héctor Rebasti, told him that Julio Cao ‘had been buried in one piece’. Rebasti, not wanting to naysay Delmira Cao, didn’t dare say a word. But Tries decided to ‘pay homage’ to Julio Cao on a television program, by telling the story of how he died.
‘It never occurred to you that the family might be watching the program?’
‘I had already brought it up with Delmira. A while before.’
‘What did she say?’
‘She didn’t react, not a word. And she’s my point of reference.’
One winter morning, César Trejo bursts into a pastry shop on Rivadavia and Avenida La Plata. He did his military service and was released on 23 December 1981. They reinstated him on 9 April 1982, and sent him to war. His rhetoric is convoluted, full of sentences built around phrases like ‘the dialectic of the master and slave’, ‘the symbolic production of the elites’, ‘hybrid warfare’. He explains the foundations of British military doctrine in a wide digression that draws on the work of Rudyard Kipling: they bury their dead where they fall, sowing the message that if a soldier of her British Majesty had been there once, they can be there again. The conclusion, he says, is evident: the motive of identification is to prepare the bodies for transport back to the continent and erase Argentine presence on the islands.
‘Lieutenant Colonel Cardozo’s report is a catastrophe’, he says.
‘The Argentine Forensic Anthropologist Team says their work was facilitated by the way the bodies had been conserved.’
‘If one credits them. I don’t give them any credit. What spurred the experts’ initiative? A trip to London made by a couple of Argentine ex-combatants. They’re greeted by a British officer who hands them an envelope, and orders them to begin identification.’
‘He gave them an envelope, but where did you get the information about him ordering them to begin identification?’
‘It’s obvious. We knew right off the objective was to move the bodies.’
‘In what way does identifying them change the supposed objective? They could be moved regardless of being identified or not.’
‘No, to start with, let’s see… First there’s the origin of the initiative, which is British.’
‘You don’t believe the encounter between Cardozo and Julio Aro was coincidental?’
‘No. What an idiotic idea. What’s more, they invoke the word identity. In Argentina, it’s a concept used for desaparecidos. Identity is not an issue with the fallen Argentine soldiers. We talk about locating, location. At no time has the Commission been against identif… I mean locating the graves. We requested that an expert be present during the work. Enrique Brunner, a doctor, a forensic lawyer, and an ex-combatant in the Malvinas.’
‘The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team is world-renowned.’
‘Madonna is world-renowned. She doesn’t sing well; she doesn’t dance well.’
They gave her a comb. A silver crucifix. A folder with a technical report, images of a coffin and a row of teeth. Before that, there had been a short-lived life. Adriana Rodríguez Guerrero, 57 years old, mother of four, is at home in Lomas de Zamora. There’s a football jersey with the name ‘Lobito’ hanging over a vitrine. In front of it, there’s a photo of Gustavo Rodríguez, her brother, wearing the jersey.
‘Not long ago, I found out they called him Lobito,’ Adriana says, smoothing the tablecloth, her nails painted in a peaked violet.
She was born in the country, in the province of Santiago del Estero. When she was four years old, and he was three, their parents brought them to Lomas de Zamora where they grew up among relatives. They sent her into domestic service at fourteen.
‘My brother took whatever odd jobs he could find. He slept wherever night-time caught up with him. He never had a home.’
In 1981, at nineteen, she married the man who is still her husband, and her brother was recruited into military service.
‘They notified us that he was being sent to the Malvinas, so we went to see him at the base.’
They said their goodbyes without drama, expecting to see each other again. Then came the letters until, finally, silence. Gustavo was dead for five days – from the 11th to the 16th of June – before his sister got word.
‘Nobody could tell us anything. We scoured the news looking for his face. In the end, someone notified my grandparents and sent the neighbors over to inform me. But it wasn’t until twenty-five years later, in 2007, when I learned how he had died. An ex-combatant looked me up and gave me the account. My brother had just walked into the non-commissioned officers’ casino. He had guard duty. An airplane flew over it and dropped a bomb.’
For more than three decades, Adriana had no official notice of her brother’s death or details on how it had happened; at no time had she ever been contacted by officials from any one of the successive administrations or the military, who had sent him to war.
‘Julio Aro came by in 2008, and asked if I wanted to know where my brother was. I said no. Years later, Human Rights called and I said “No, it’s all politically motivated.” But in 2018, I found out – on Facebook – that two of my brother’s buddies had been identified.’
‘And I said to myself, “Don’t be so selfish.” So, I reached out.’
They took the sample and not long afterwards, she was summoned for a notification. She went with her children, who had never met their dead uncle, and listened to the report, which informed her that her brother was in grave number nineteen.
‘I thought that after thirty-seven years, I was done grieving. But no. It felt as though I had been waiting for him this whole time.’
She doesn’t have many photos of her brother, but she has the letters he sent from the islands:
Today something very nice actually happened over here. President Galtieri visited… ATC came too, and Gómez Fuentes filmed us. Can you imagine how cool? Me on television. [Gómez Fuentes was a news anchor at ATC, the public channel.]
‘To him, at the time, they were important people. To me they were garbage. He settled for so little.’
VHS already existed in 1981, when Adriana got married, but video was so expensive at the time that to keep a souvenir of her wedding, they recorded it on two TDK brand cassette tapes. One day, when her brother was doing his military service and the war not even a likelihood yet, she visited him at the base.
‘My husband had given me a tape recorder, and there was a little room left on one of our wedding tapes, so I recorded our conversation.’
Gustavo was eighteen at the time of the recording, and on it, he complains about things that would later seem so trivial: he says they only give him a minute to get dressed, they aren’t allowed to keep the food their visitors bring. He hasn’t the slightest inkling that in a few months he’ll be exterminated by a bomb, and his sister will spend the next thirty-five years not knowing where he’s buried, twenty-five not knowing how he died.
‘Everything would have been so different had he still been with us. Instead, I have nothing. I have letters. I have the cologne he used.’
As if pulled out of a trance, she raises her eyes from the tablecloth and says:
‘Wild Country, by Avon. I’ll never forget that scent.’
Image: The Argentine Military Cemetery in Port Darwin, Falkland Islands, © Tomás Terroba